Monday, 9 December 2013

Benjamin Britten - Phaedra

I also enjoyed listening to another Britten piece I didn't know the other week - the cantata Phaedra, written for Janet Baker in 1975. Britten was seriously ill when he wrote it (he died the following year). It was one of a number of pieces he wrote towards the end of his life -the most famous being the opera, Death in Venice- that featured in the recently re-shown documentary, Britten's Endgame.

In it, Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, finds herself passionately infatuated with his son, Hippolytus. He rejects her and she decides to kill herself. The documentary included an interview with Janet Baker  in which she said how, when she was rehearsing the work with Britten, she felt overwhelmed by the evident personal significance of the words (those I've put in italics) in this excerpt and felt hardly able to sing them:

Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I've travelled on my dangerous path!
I go to meet my husband; at his side will stand
Hippolytus. How shall I hide my thick adulterous passion for this
youth, who has rejected
me, and knows the truth? Will he not draw his
sword and strike me dead? Suppose he spares
me? What if nothing's said? Can I kiss Theseus
with dissembled poise? The very dust rises to
disabuse my husband — to defame me and accuse!
Oenone(1),  I want to die. Death will give me
freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
unhappy's no catastrophe!

(1)Oenone is Phaedra's nurse and confidante in Racine's Phedre. The text of Britten's Phaedra is taken from a translation of this by Robert Lowell.

And finally, another powerful revelation of the Britten centenary for me were the letters that passed between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears...

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on this link or the British Composers label to read them all.


Gwil W said...

As in life so in death. I was impressed when I saw the small and humble black gravestones of Pears and Britten side by side on the mown turf almost like musical notes in a neat row with others. It made me wonder why so many feel the need for monster sized statues and acres of marble. There's the old adage and I think it contains some general truth: the bigger stone the bigger the bastard underneath.

Dominic Rivron said...

GwilW: Those Pharaohs must have been reaaally bad!!

I've not seen their graves. I find visiting the graves of artists I like of one kind or another really quite poignant. On one level, one cannot begin to know a person through their work. On another level, one can. The result, poignant.

Gwil W said...

I think the graves are indeed part of the personality. John Betjeman buried in a sand dune, Dylan Thomas resting on a grassy slope near a church and a pub, Beethoven evicted from one place to go to another (as in life), Shakespeare's curse and therefore staying put . . . curiously I've not yet been to Auden's grave and it is not far away from me. I must make a point of going there when the weather improves.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, and DH Lawrence moved from Vence to Taos… perfectly suited to his savage pilgrimage.

Alan Burnett said...

Thanks to you I think I might have discovered the secret of listening to opera. If you listen to it with the words in front of you you can escape the task of trying to interpret the words and concentrate on the sound.

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dear Dominic,
what a beautiful video on those touching letters between Britten and Pears - thank you for bringing attention to it! I also loved the voice and pronounciation of the speaker.
And poor Phaedra!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

Gwil W and SW: For some reason this train of thought reminds me of the Nick Cave Song, There She Goes, My Beautiful World:

...Philip Larkin stuck it out
in a library in Hull
And Dylan Thomas died drunk in
St. Vincent's hospital...


AB: On the subject of watching/listening to opera and the words, Absolutely. I think opera when you can read subtitles (or surtitles) is spellbinding. Without the words, it's not (to put it mildly).

BH: It's a very poignant video, isn't it?

GOAT said...

My favourite appearance of Phaedra in song, the immortal pop misfit Lee Hazlewood, inventor of eerie psychedelic country music, and one of his many productive partnerships with the delightful Nancy Sinatra: