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Composer Focus: Roderick Williams on Benjamin Britten

Nothing Concrete text
14 Apr 2020
18 min listen

Baritone Roderick Williams joins Edward Seckerson to talk about 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten.

The first thing is I come to him with my composer’s hat on rather than a singer’s hat on. I think he was the composer who first woke me up to classical music

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Composer Focus: Roderick Williams on Benjamin Britten

We revisit our Composer Focus series from November 2018, when baritone Roderick Williams joined Edward Seckerson to talk about 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten.


Barbican: Hello and welcome to this edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. In this episode, we’re diving back into our archive to November 2018 and our Composer Focus series, when baritone Roderick Williams joined us to talk about 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten.

ES: Hello and welcome to this Barbican classical podcast with me Edward Seckerson. I’m here at the Barbican with baritone Roderick Williams to talk about Benjamin Britten. Roddy. A complex and often contradictory character: a gay man in time of intolerance and illegality, a pacifist in time of war, and an intensely private man who nonetheless courted the establishment – there’s quite an interesting contradiction there. What do you make of him?

RW: Well I think the first thing is I come to him with my composer’s hat on rather than a singer’s hat on. I think he was the composer who first woke me up to classical music in a way, as a teenager. I responded directly to his style and his harmony, and then I also responded directly to his setting of English – he was a composer who set words that I understood. So when I was listening at home with my family and had the classical radio on, when his music came on people were singing in English and I understood what it was about. A Midsummer Night’s Dream for example was one of the first operas of his I got to know through my parents’ record collection. As a teenager, the fact that his name is synonymous with our country as well, something just chimed for me, and I thought this is someone who kind of belongs to me, to us.

ES: He was first and last a great word-setter. I mean that’s what – arguably – well I think he is the greatest opera composer of the 20th century.

RW: Yeah, in a particularly dramatic sense. I’ve listened to many great operas by other 20th and 21st century writers and I very rarely shed a tear in them. But in all Britten’s operas, before I was – I’m an opera singer myself – but just as a listener I was caught up in his stories and he knows, almost Puccini-esque, he knows the right moment to turn the screw, if you’ll pardon that.

ES: Yes, tremendous theatrical instincts. And you know, that’s a contradiction in itself, because by all accounts he was a very inhibited man, and yet here is this very uninhibited, red-blooded, theatrical music. He really did have a nose for the theatre.

RW: Yes and in fact if you turn that on it’s head: take someone of his contemporaries, Sir Michael Tippett, who was a very flamboyant man and very open to gestures, and yet his operas are incredibly tightly bound in a very undramatic way. So I think it’s very interesting you point that out about Britten and his personal life and his personal demeanour, that he wasn’t able to express himself openly on a public stage.

RW: All these wonderful stories about him being unable to witness premieres of his own pieces, particularly the Opera House for example, and just pacing up and down outside unable to bear the tension of it. And again as a composer I know the joy of hearing other people interpret your music – it’s a wonderful thing and I want to be in the room when it happens. The idea of excusing myself and being next door while it’s going on is just extraordinary.

ES: Well he was very susceptible to criticism by all accounts, he took it very personally. Now as a composer, and indeed as an artist, you just can’t, can you really in a funny sort of way.

RW: One can’t really allow oneself to. Because criticism is a very useful thing, but it depends how it’s delivered and from whom it’s delivered. So when he would receive criticism in a public forum – in other words newspapers – sort of open letters as it were from people shouting his music down, his ideas down, of course that’s extremely hurtful. When someone comes up to him and offers him something person to person that’s an easier thing to take.

ES: Let’s look at the amazing collection of theatre works through your eyes. So Billy Budd and The Rape of Lucretia are two roles, two operas that are in your repertoire. As a singing actor, what does Britten give you?

RW: Well, in The Rape of Lucretia he gives you a character in Tarquinius who has a journey throughout that piece. He gives you a chance to get inside a rapist, but actually – on the cover of the music it’s The Rape of Lucretia – but actually it’s a chance to try and work out what drives this man on this hot night when he’s quite drunk, what causes him to do something about this fixation he’s had, and he has the other characters – Junius in particular – to try and stir him on. That’s a wonderful journey, very interesting – when I say wonderful journey, wonderful journey as a rapist – what I mean to say is it’s a very interesting dramatic gift or opportunity, to try and take something that on the face of it is just evil and try and give it human form as it were.

ES: Is the subtext there for the taking, do you reckon, because again this nose for theatre that he had?

RW: Yes, I think so, it’s a very interesting libretto as well and Britten – in his well-documented to and fro with librettists is often to say ‘I need this, I need that, give me more’ – but he was very specific about what he needed so he obviously had an idea of how to try and mould human characters. And again the libretto is very interesting in building Tarquinius’s relationship with this older woman with whom he’s fixated at the beginning. His first thought when she comes up is ‘I will prove her chaste’ because in his mind she’s chaste. He’s not taking on a bet, for him she’s a paragon of virtue. But there is something about that hot night and this proximity to her that drives him to do something that he hadn’t contemplated at the beginning of the show.

ES: Of course if you were a tenor, he’d have given you even more. Now there’s his life partner Peter Pears obviously was a grateful recipient of his work, but he wrote so specifically for his voice, and that particular physiognomy of that voice, you know where the break was, that tenors the world over subsequently have sometimes had problems with it.

RW: Yes but fortunately also since the glory days of Peter Pears’s and Benjamin Britten’s recordings of them for Decca, since those days enough tenors have come through to explode that sound world for current tenors and my peers and my friends to be able to take this on without fear. And I’m thinking of Jon Vickers’s recording of Peter Grimes for example as being such a completely different take on it, that now – in my most recent performance of Grimes for example was with the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton who’s in the kind of Vickers mould, but has also a different sort of musical background so that he can take on the sort of subtlety of for example a Philip Langridge interpretation, so he does a Philip Langridge interpretation but with a Jon Vickers voice for example. So now it’s open season I think for tenors, I think they’ll rest a bit more easily because of it. But fortunately for me there are enough baritone roles in those operas, and I’m thinking particularly of Death in Venice for example, which is a tenor vehicle, but also with that comes this gift of so many different roles for the baritone, it’s literally a change of hats, which is also a wonderful thing to play.
ES: It’s a staggering masterpiece I think, really staggering. The theatricality of the song cycles as well, I mean do you ever wish you were a tenor so you could sing Serenade and Les Illuminations?

RW: Do you know, no it hasn’t ever occurred to me. Those are pieces I got to know really well as an audience, you know, I loved them, my recordings of those, many different recordings, and I loved hearing the tenors sing them. Whereas I think all of Britten’s voice and piano songs are now published in transposition – you win some you lose some in that sort of game – but something like the Serenade obviously which is so tied up in instruments and their particular resonance at that pitch – I’m thinking of the horn in particular for the Serenade – it’s impossible to try and transpose that. I tell you what though, I’m so happy that Britten’s professional relationship with Fischer-Dieskau led to the Songs and Proverbs, because at least we baritones get that one cycle. Obviously I sing folk songs in transposition, that’s fine, but the Songs and Proverbs was something that had lain on my shelves for some time, I was a bit reticent, a bit cowardly about taking it off the shelf and actually learning them. But when I did I found this extraordinary masterpiece. I remember a particular performance of that, we ended the first half with it, and I came off stage and my blood was boiling, I was fizzing, and I couldn’t go back on to – you know there was the pianist Iain Burnside saying ‘come on Roddy let’s go back on and take another bow’. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t face them, I was locked in this area that William Blake starts and Britten completes and just ended up introspective and just curling in on myself – oh it was an amazing experience.

ES: One of the things that always strikes me about Britten, and there’s this kinship with Dmitri Shostakovich that developed. And I think they are similar in one respect and that is that they achieve extraordinary effects and great atmosphere with so little on the page. When you look at Serenade, when you look at Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, there is very little there and it’s staggering what they achieved with it, isn’t it?

RW: Yes, actually you talking about the Serenade, I also think of the Nocturne with instrumental movements for each player and then all together at the end. It’s as though he takes a look at the instrument and says ‘Oh I wonder what that can do’ and before you know it he’s written the definitive piece for that. Actually my younger brother, when he was at school he was a very gifted classical guitarist, so he learnt the Nocturne for guitar that Britten wrote for Julian Bream which is again, the defining piece for classical guitarists. You know, if you’re a classical guitarist of any worth at some point you’ve got to look at that. And also a friend of mine was an oboist and he wrote the Metamorphoses after Ovid – again, the defining piece for oboe solo. It’s just… And his harp writing for Osian Ellis, for example – that Britten harp sound is a defining sound. So I’m in awe, again of him as a composer, looking at instruments and thinking ‘Oh I think I’ll write the definitive piece for Indian nose flute’ or whatever.

ES: It’s extraordinary. And you can also hear, because he conducted as well, you can hear in Nocturne certainly Gustav Mahler, in the way those solo instruments he used as a night piece, and so there were lots of other influences there as well. If you had to choose a handful of pieces, you’ve mentioned one or two Roddy, but which are the pieces you couldn’t live without of Britten’s?

RW: Well I think Grimes is definitely there, Peter Grimes is there not least the ‘Sea Interludes’, partly because they remind me of what comes next – when one finishes I have the rest of the scene coming on in my mind because I’ve been in productions of it – partly also because Phyllida Lloyd’s Opera North production she set those ‘Sea Interludes’. Rather than just bring the curtain down and have the scene change, she employed us to change the scene for her you know – double time! – and I remember images, there’s the moonlight interlude where she asked Jeff Lloyd-Roberts, he’s a big lad, she asked him to deadlift this boy, this young chap they’d found, I’m sorry I don’t remember his name, he’s probably in his twenties now. But he did dead so well, he just dropped off the cliff, and was alone on stage and in the moonlight Jeff came and just picked him up and brought him to the front of the stage, and at the climax of the interlude Jeff just sort of hoisted him up straight up into the air into this single shaft of light, and we were all of us in the wings watching every night because this image was just so arresting. So that is, the ‘Interludes’ are one thing I would keep, for their instrumentation as much as anything. But then I would need to grab hold of Billy Budd as that goes past as well, I think because it’s a baritone title role it’s something I’ve really enjoyed investigating when I did that a couple of years ago. Wonderful production by my sister-in-law, Orpha Phelan – very good to keep these things in the family, and she had a very good version of it. But one of the things she did beautifully was set the interlude again between the Captain’s, the first time we meet Captain Vere in his offices, when that scene changes to the gents below deck going into sea shanties is a beautiful interlude that gradually morphs into this ‘Blow her away!’. And I feel the hairs on the back of my neck now, and that’s just one of those astonishing moments. How a composer could write not one but two operas about the sea – and you could probably include Death in Venice as the third one as well – all about the sea, the water, and have them so totally different. One is about the Aldeburgh coast, the other one is about the mist and open waters off the coast of Europe, and they sound completely different but they are both about the sea – how he did that I think is astonishing.

Barbican: Thank you to Roderick Williams and Edward Seckerson. Next time, Sir Antonio Pappano joins us to discuss the life and works of composer Gustav Mahler.

AP: Only when you start to go to the extremes, where there's the extreme of the pastoral, lyrical qualities, dreaminess, and not only going to the dark side - but probing, putting your finger in a wound and keeping it there - and therefore the music in a certain way hurts. And it's supposed to. 

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