Inside 20th-century music

When one thinks about unclassifiable composers like Hector Berlioz, Alexander Scriabin or Charles Ives, the very twentieth-century question raises itself: What is their particular donation to our time from theirs, and what will be their message for the future of music?

For me, the most elusive modern composer in that regard has always been Benjamin Britten. And yet, two points have managed to come across to me very clearly of late, in thinking about Britten's music.

The first has to do with his place in the British musical tradition. The essential British heritage has always defined itself to me via two basic items, namely church music and its golden-age Elizabethan tradition of song: in a word, the marriage of music either to liturgy or literature. Britten was the unique and happy heir of both facets of the heritage, and an almost anointed reinterpreter of ancient times, in linking them with our own.

Literature and music are not supposed to be elements that mix well, but in a nation like Great Britain, where the word has such awesome preeminence, it would seem that almost every other art has had to develop around (or in spite of) the verbal. Art songs, folk song arrangements, operas, choral works, even music for actual local church- worship performance, loom large in Britten's catalog - so much so that the question could be (and often has been) raised, about the ultimate potence of his gifts, divorced especially from the theater, and examined from a more purely musical standpoint.

But seeing the word as a dependency is only one way of looking at the whole of Britten's musical affections. A composer marrying words and music is responding to sensibilities different from, but not necessarily less creative than, those behind absolute music like sonatas and symphonies. They can actually be seen as another form of discipline for the creative artist, and can become a way of thinking and sorting musical ideas. One case in point might be the ''Narcissus'' movement of Britten's Six Metamorphoses After Ovid - a work for solo oboe - in which a musical statement will appear, followed by its upside-down version. The result of this repeated question-and-answer inversion is a mirror effect exactly like Narcissus' reflected image in the pool.

A work like the Spring Symphony may appear to be even rather Elizabethan in its stringing together of a lot of little song settings for chorus, soloists and orchestra, but the opera Peter Grimes has an imposing musical structure and a concomitant inevitability about it that is overpowering. (It was also Britten's first opera, and is probably his ''if-he'd-written-nothing-else'' masterpiece.)

Part of Britten's unpredictability is the fact that he gives us larger structures and forms when and where he pleases, and, for my money, being Elizabethan means being absolutely elusive and a setter of tradition, not a follower of it. Britten's was a positively mercurial mind - one of the most brilliant in the twentieth century, flitting constantly about from idea to idea. His was a dizzying talent, but in serious musical matters like mastery of rhythm , contrapuntal skill and orchestral color, his works are of the genuine item. In being so prolific, he may at times seem to have left the process of rejection completely up to us, but his mastery was very much a fact.

Benjamin Britten is one of those musical personalities whom we're probably going to be trying to figure out for many years to come, and one can't pretend to accomplish much in a few lines. But, for certain, he left one thing for the musical world to ''think'' about long and hard, and that is: simplicity.

So rooted in things of basic human understanding is his music that, even when he is using his simple musical elements to be anything but straightforward (as in his Thomas Mann-based opera, Death in Venice, or parts of the second string quartet), we get the point nonetheless.

Simplicity is something our world has been craving and yearning for, ever since Freud seemed to take it from us; yet, as one penetrating music critic has put it, what today could still be more uncomfortable, puzzling and fidget-producing to modern audiences than . . . simplicity? On the other hand, the wheels of change are at work in musical creativity today, turning in just this direction, thankfully. The initial Minimal music pablums, so popular just now, will give way to the real simplicity of rootedness.

In Act III of his operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Britten sets Theseus' line: For never anything can be amiss,/When simpleness and duty tender it. This, for me, beautifully sums up Britten's message for us today and his gift for music's future. A Britten listening list:

* Peter Grimes (opera)

* Billy Budd (opera)

* Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings

* A Ceremony of Carols (choral)

* Spring Symphony

* A Midsummer Night's Dream (opera)

* War Requiem

* Second String Quartet

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