Petra Philipsen

"Too accessible to be comprehensible to the genuine avant-garde." Analysing Benjamin Britten’s Music

The above quotation from an article in Tempo (1963) by Hans Keller clearly points out that both Britten’s composition methods and underlying ideas are in conflict with those of the avant-garde composers as well as of the ‘hard-core’ theorists, who often put down Britten’s music as too ‘simplistic’. Their reproach is that Britten’s composition methods show a lack of consistency as a consequence of his endeavour to be accessible to a wider audience. In this regard the interpretation of Britten’s tonality is a key issue.

Since triads and scales are often present in Britten’s music, many commentators are indeed inclined to seek forms of tonality in his work – usually at the expense of other parameters. The question then arises as to when one can speak of tonality. Are one or more clear triads sufficient in order to be able to speak of a form of tonality or must there be also a functional harmonic structure?

Taking examples from Peter Grimes and the Third String Quartet, I will try to interpret these triads and scales in a different way, namely as diatonic pitches belonging to a cluster, pattern or layer. As a result, ambiguities are evoked that make it often much more difficult to identify long-term key relationships than it would seem at first glance.

In other words:  the extent to which Britten makes use of traditional ‘tonality’ on the one hand and of more advanced techniques to construct the music according to some kind of system on the other will be the focus of my paper. Also, I will point out what the musical effect and possibly even the musical meaning of this approach can be.