Soirées musicales, op. 9

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            Benjamin Britten is one of the last century’s most respected composers, and unquestionably the most influential and admired British composer from WW II until his death in 1976.   Fantastically gifted from an early age (almost a thousand compositions before his first mature, published one!), he was blessed with the early attainment of an authentic personal “voice” in his musical style.  That style was at once perceived as modern, fresh, and non-derivative—and yet generally accessible and popular with the broad public for art music.   From the beginning he was practically contemptuous of the main stream of revered British composers—Elgar, Vaughan William, Holst, and others, many of whom he dubbed the “pastoralists.”  Their utilization of traditional English folk music as an important stylistic source was substantially criticized by Britten as evidence of a lack of imagination and a reactionary step in a century whose art was moving rapidly into the future.  It is clear that he had a special gift for vocal music, and there are hundreds of works in various genres as evidence; but, in point of fact, it is in the field of opera and stage works that he made perhaps his most important contribution, starting with his first big success, Peter Grimes.  That opera was finished in 1945, and he went on to compose well over a dozen more works that collectively place him with Richard Strauss, Puccini, and Janáček as the giants of twentieth-century opera.

            Nevertheless, Britten was an active and successful composer of instrumental music—the list is long, one only has to think of such works as Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” film scores, and several important solo concertos.

            Scores for films played an important part of his early career, for in 1935 the young twenty-one year old composer obtained a job with a government film entity, charged with providing music for various informative documentaries about the post office and other government activities.  The practical, no-nonsense demands of the job were a boon to honing rapidly his mastery of the orchestra and writing to deadline.  Soon, he was given the task of providing music for a short film (The Tocher) about a young Scot’s quest to win a maiden and her dowry.  For the film Britten turned to a composer whose compositions he admired, Gioachino Rossini.  The latter, had “retired” from a spectacular career in opera composition at the young age of thirty-seven, upon the success of his masterpiece, Guillaume Tell.  The rest of his life, Rossini only sporadically composed, mostly minor vocal and piano works.  Several of these compositions were published under names such as Les Soirées musicales.  It is this modest and checkered repertoire to which Britten turned as his source for background music for The Tocher.

            Arranging for a small chamber group, he “borrowed” some of these pieces, as well as a few things from Guillaume Tell.  But, rather than simply writing out a straightforward orchestration of the short movements, Britten exercised his growing, formidable skills as an orchestrator to give them a new, twentieth-century brilliance and color.  That trait, of course, was a life-long virtue in his work; he was perhaps Britain’s greatest master of the orchestra.  A couple of years later, in 1937, he drew upon this score, choosing three of the movements, adding a couple more, and arranging the lot for a larger orchestra.  Alluding to Rossini’s title, he called the five-movement suite, “Suite of Five Movements from Rossini,” or Soirées musicales.  It received its première that year, performed by the BBC Orchestra.

            The opening “March” is from Guillaume Tell, the “Pas de soldats” in Act III.  It’s a brief and lively affair, less of a quick march than music for a cavalry pass by, and absolutely typical of sparkling French ballet music—which, of course, the opera is full of.  The second movement, Canzonetta, is just that: a plaintive little song, with woodwind solos over undulating strings, fully redolent of say, sunset over Lake Como in northern Italy.  A song from the Tyrolean Alps follows, and almost every commentator enjoys pointing out the “yodeling” effect in the tune, first heard in the solo trumpet.  Its rustic charm and stomping, “hiccupping” fun perfectly evoke the traditional Alpine “slapping” dance (you may remember Chevy Chase’s unfortunate encounter with this rough dance in the movie, European Vacation).  The ensuing, sensuous Bolero employs the customary castanets, but the real attraction is the sparkling, luminous orchestration, with luxurious, cascading timbres.  The final movement, a driving Tarantella, actually seems to be from a religious choral work, but here is transformed into the frenetic Sicilian dance, popularly associated with dancing to ward off the poison from a spider bite.  Well, never mind that, but it is a feverish, cheerful way to end this charming example of Britten’s early genius at handling the orchestra:  in this case, “old wine in new bottles.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan