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An American in Britain discusses Britten in America
Dr Justin Vickers tells us about Benjamin Britten and his time in the United States
Thank you for speaking with us Justin! First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself - where are you from in the States?
I am a native of Danville, Illinois; a Midwesterner. I am currently a professor of music at Illinois State University, which is located in Normal, Illinois, about two-and-a-half hours from my hometown.
You'll be singing as part of a series of events at The Red House, the former home of Benjamin Britten, during June. What sparked your interest in Britten?
I have been studying Britten since my undergraduate days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I was first assigned Britten songs as a matter of my voice training under now-Emeritus Professor Ronald Hedlund. Over the next few years I went on to sing from and enjoy Britten’s song repertoire, culminating in my senior recital on which I performed Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings. I continued performing Britten’s song and preparing opera arias, etc, throughout my master’s work at the University of Kentucky.
This year's Aldeburgh Festival, as well as the exhibition and events at The Red House, mark the years in which Britten lived and worked in America. Why did he travel to the States?
Britten traveled to the United States in 1939 and doubtless would never have thought that he’d remain for a further three years – although depending on when you asked him that, during his “American Years”, he might have said that he never intended to return home.
How did America influence Britten's music? Did Britten have an influence on the American music scene?
I’m not sure that America influenced Britten’s music, per se, but this period of time from 1939-1942 was certainly advantageous in Britten’s life and in the natural development of his compositional voice. The “space” that he had during this period – a space that was decidedly free from England – actually permitted Britten to hear the call of his native country, beckoning him homeward to Suffolk and his home at the Old Mill in Snape. As history tells us, it was in a Los Angeles bookstore that Britten and Pears found a copy of George Crabbe’s The Borough, and the pages from which sprang the character of Peter Grimes, which would be Britten’s first great operatic success.
How did you get involved with the Britten-Pears Foundation at The Red House?
Through my Britten research – naturally it is the center of Britten research and the Britten-Pears Archive represents the largest single-composer-focused archival repository in the world; not to mention the vast array of archival materials related to Britten’s colleagues and contemporaries. Over the years (since my first trip there in summer 2009), I have been fortunate to develop some very meaningful friendships with members of the BPF staff and archive. In a very real sense, there is a welcoming atmosphere that makes residencies that number into the weeks or months a very pleasant experience, indeed. I suppose many people say this, but Aldeburgh is a spiritual home for me, and I feel every bit as comfortable here as anywhere in the United States.
During your performances in Britten's Library at The Red House, what do you hope to inform visitors about with regards to Britten, his life and his work?
Research has always been important in my preparation of the various musical works that I was preparing for performance. It has been a natural transition in my life as a musician to focus more and more on musicology. I am keenly aware that generally performances have an impermanent quality that, unless recorded, exists only temporarily; equally there is an impermanence to the life and longevity of the human voice. Musicology, on the other side of the coin, for whatever we may have to say of any value, exists as meaningfully as the life that can be brought to a musical work through the act of performance. So really, in my life at least, I relish getting to have a foot in both worlds: performance and scholarship. Musicology has become an extension of my life in music, and my passion for its history and context, which I can therefore experience and maintain in that other world in which I have a foot firmly planted: that is scholarship and academia.
You'll be discussing Britten and also singing some of Britten's 'American' songs - as a vocal tutor, how important are the vocals in Britten's work?
These miniature snapshots – Stories by the Piano – cannot hope but to share a fleeting moment of Britten’s music. Mindful of such time constraints, I am focusing on sharing from the small number of folksong arrangements that Britten composed during his time in the States. My maternal family line is from Kentucky, and with that connection in mind, I will be sharing a song from the Kentucky son John Jacob Niles: “I wonder as I wander.” Britten’s introduction to Niles’s setting of this traditional Appalachian folksong during this period, subsequently inspired the composer to write his own very sparse setting. The folksong melody is in the voice, which is customary, and it is the accompaniment that actually belongs to Niles and Britten, respectively. I will be singing snippets of both versions alongside other songs from this small number of American-era works. As someone with Kentucky roots, it is heartwarming to share this Niles setting, which was the inspiration for a host of folksong arrangements by Britten. Arguably, however, his setting of “I wonder as I wander” was Britten’s first foray into the genre, and it remained in Britten’s and Pears’ concerts together through 1972 (and extending beyond the composer’s death through the end of Pears’ performing career).
Your performances are being described as 'stories by the piano' - what's your favorite story about Britten?
It’s impossible to pinpoint any one story, but it is safe to say that Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of the composer had a perpetual home on my bedside table in my NYC apartment!
What do you hope this year's exhibitions and Festival events at The Red House will achieve in terms of celebrating the time that Britten spent in the USA?
This was a pivotal period in Britten’s life: a period when the composer was not just coming to terms with who he was as a person – establishing his lifelong relationship with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, with whom Britten had traveled to the States – but also what he wanted to say musically, how his compositional voice would be established and articulated, and how he would navigate his strongly-held worldviews with what he maintained was the responsibility of the composer as a member of society.
You can still catch Justin's performance of 'Stories by the Piano' in Britten's Library at The Red House on Monday June 18, Thursday June 21 and Friday June 22, whilst you can visit The Britten-Pears Foundation's exhibition on Britten in America through to October 28 - see more details and find out more about Britten at https://brittenpears.org/.