How did you first encounter the music of Benjamin Britten? Perhaps, as a string player, you pizzicatoed your way through the second movement of his Simple Symphony, or joined wind, brass and percussion players in his settings of Rossini’s Soirées Musicales. More advanced players may have tackled his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Or, you heard these at a concert/on air/on a recording.
‘No,’ I hear you say. ‘My first encounter with Britten also included the voice.’ The carols from A Ceremony of Carols, the New Year Carol, the oratorio St Nicolas with its audience participation hymns, Noye’s Fludde, the sublime Te Deum in C wafting its way into the rafters of churches and cathedrals nationwide, Rejoice in the Lamb, Old Abram Brown, the searing horror depicted in the War Requiem, the operas, the song cycles … the list goes on and on.
For me, the slightly acerbic/acidic/abrasive yet exciting ‘Adam lay ybounden‘ from the Ceremony of Carols introduced me to Britten’s music when I was at school. As a student, I played the Primo part of the piano duet in Noye’s Fludde. Some years later in another performance, two of my pupils played the duet, my husband conducted, our children were in the animals’ chorus and I sat in the audience, joining in the audience hymn ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ at the climax of the storm scene.
Singing is something we all can do; the voice is our own personally tailored, portable instrument. By writing vocal/choral music of quality for children, amateurs, professionals and even random audiences to sing, Britten, who wanted his music to be ‘useful’, became one of the most user-friendly twentieth century composers, using the musical instrument we all possess.
So it is highly appropriate that the design of the new fifty pence coin celebrating Britten’s centenary features words of Tennyson set to music by Britten in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. ‘Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying.’ Hear the line at 5:43, sung by Peter Pears –
This is the first time that a coin has been struck to honour a British composer; previously, the old twenty pound notes depicted Elgar – worth more in monetary terms. A violinist friend quipped that when playing Elgar’s Chanson de Matin for certain audiences, he used to brandish a twenty pound note. If he had one.
Yes, our twenty pound notes are often tucked away carefully, and brought out for more serious financial purchases than those made with the fifty pence coins rattling in our small change. 50p – ordinary coinage for everyday transactions, used by children and adults, almost without thinking. Just like the voice.
Richard Jarman, director of the Britten-Pears Foundation, said: “Benjamin Britten wanted his music to be ‘useful’ and to be played and heard by as many people as possible. He would therefore be thrilled that this new 50p coin will put him into everyone’s hands and pockets. We are enormously proud that Britten is being honoured in this way by the Royal Mint and the nation.”
Tom Phillips, the designer of the coin, once sang in a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony – conducted by Britten. He said: “What I wanted the coin to speak of was music. Thus the stave soon entered the design … and his name married well with the stave. The natural accompaniment with Britten’s passion for poetry as our preeminent composer of opera and song, was some kind of key quotation. What better clarion call for a musical anniversary could there be than ‘Blow, bugle, blow: set the wild echoes flying?’ ”
What indeed. Commemorative versions of the coin will be released later this month, and the coin will be in general circulation later this year – I believe it will be released on Britten’s birthday, November 22nd, St Cecilia’s Day. On that day, thousands of children all over the country will be part of a Big Sing, performing songs from Britten’s Friday Afternoons. Parents – a 50p reward for your children who are participating may not go amiss.