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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Unlikely Britten

You might have heard that the Benjamin Britten centenary is in full swing. BAM is certainly participating, staging Glyndebourne Festival Opera's dramatic production of the composer's Billy Budd from February 7—13.

But you might also still be wondering who this Britten guy is, or at least what he sounds like. Despite being one of England’s most cherished native sons, the composer, born the same year of the infamous 1913 Rite of Spring premiere at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, can still seem relatively elusive. If his music were an object, its edges would be beveled and its corners smooth, qualities which make it both endearingly tender but also slightly difficult to hold onto at times. But enigmatic or not, it's fantastic stuff, and you probably know it better than you think. Here are two unlikely places in pop culture where you might have encountered it.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

In the opening credits of Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom (2012), the Bishop family children gather around a toy record player and, presumably of their own volition, listen to Britten’s 1946 work, A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Suzy opts to read instead, but the title of her book, Shelly and the Secret Universe, together with the stately procession of the music, speaks to several of the film’s propositions: 1) that kids are master curators of their own private worlds; 2) that they take those worlds very seriously; and 3) that adults should maybe take those worlds seriously, too.

It’s an inspired use of Britten: if the work’s title resonates with the well-intentioned if slightly condescending gaze of the kids' parents—a guide to the orchestra, but watered down for the young and naive—the actual music speaks to the perspective of the kids themselves. Britten’s theme was adapted from a regal rondeau by Henry Purcell (1659—1695), composer for three kings of England. Such a progeny makes it a fitting anthem for little Suzy and Sam, who, as the movie’s title suggests, ultimately crown themselves rulers of their own kingdom.

For more on the use of Britten in the film, read this article by Russell Platt.

2. Jeff Buckley's Arrangement of Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol"

Britten set this arcane 16th-century carol when he was only 19, as part of his choral work A Boy Was Born. Few could say what it’s about, exactly, although some have posited that its Olde-English “faucons” (falcons) and “knyghts” (knights) refer allegorically to the ritual of Christian communion. Perhaps not one for over-complication, Jeff Buckley, who included an  arrangement of Britten’s tune on his 1995 album Grace, opted for a more literal interpretation: “The 'Carol,'" Buckley writes, “is a fairytale about a falcon who takes the beloved of the singer to an orchard. The singer goes looking for her and arrives at a chamber where his beloved lies next to a bleeding knight and a tomb with Christ's body in it.”

Whatever your interpretation of the words, Buckley’s performance sticks with you. Over a guitar part that glosses Britten’s economical, elegantly descending piano lines, he opts for a feather-light falsetto, a nod to the boy soprano for whom Britten’s version was written. Together with the track’s other guitar-voice duet with religious references, the much more famous “Hallelujah,” the track also serves as a welcomed palate cleanser in the middle of an album full of more aggressive fare.

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