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The Fromm Institute For Lifelong Learning


Spring 2019
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    Mon., Feb 18, 2019



    Winter 2019

    Class Begin 01/07/2019

    Class End 02/28/2019

    Make-up Week  3/4 - 07


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    Class Begin 04/08/2019

    Class End 05/30/2019

    Make-up Week  6/3 - 06


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    Prof. Arnold = Understanding the US Economy



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    Our Best Presidents

    Prof. Fischer = Tagore & Gandhi : the Great Debate






Back to Handouts



The Britten ~ Pears Connection


Seminar:  Benjamin Britten

Professor:  Jonathan Bailey

This week we explore the personal and musical relationship of Ben and Peter – life-partners and musical collaborators.  We will listen to examples of their concertizing, examples of Pears’ artistry in interpreting Britten’s music, particularly when we delve into the “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.”  This is a powerful musical statement and highlights Britten’s attention to the details of text and mood in this unusual setting of poems from many cultures.  The reading from Alex Ross’ New Yorker article is good background for our study.  Don’t forget to have the lyrics in front of you as you listen to the “Serenade.”




The Britten Centenary

By Alex Ross, The New Yorker, December 3, 2013


Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, in their 1966 book, “Themes and Episodes,” scoffed at the fame that Benjamin Britten had attained in the mid-nineteen-sixties, when his “War Requiem” became an international symbol of antiwar sentiment. In the previous century, Stravinsky and Craft noted, George Bernard Shaw had adulated the composer Hermann Goetz, calling him the equal of Mozart and Beethoven. The implication was that Britten was benefitting from similar hype, and would soon fall into Goetzian oblivion.

Britten’s hundredth anniversary arrived on November 22nd, and the intensity of observances around the world has made it clear that Stravinsky missed the mark, as geniuses tend to do when they assess one another. Far from fading away, Britten is gradually entering the permanent repertory. Paul Kildea, in “Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century,” an authoritative new biography, notes that, accounting for inflation, the composer’s royalties have doubled since his death, in 1976. Musicians and audiences alike are compulsively revisiting Britten’s music, in order to pursue its fleeting beauties and test its chilly depths.

Among other things, we keep returning to “Peter Grimes,” that grand opera of small-town paranoia, which first brought Britten renown, in 1945. On the night of the composer’s centenary, “Grimes” received gala treatment at Carnegie Hall, in a concert performance by the St. Louis Symphony. Each time I hear the score, it seems to change color, like the blue-green-silver sea off the Suffolk coast, where the opera is set. With David Robertson conducting in driven, exacting fashion, I was more conscious than ever of the degree to which “Grimes” is built from attenuated, ditty-like motifs. These insidiously hummable four- or five- or six-note figures act as musical cement, binding the architecture together, while also creating psychological unease, through insistent repetition.

At the outset of “Grimes,” the brooding fisherman of the Borough is being interrogated about the death of one of his apprentices. Swallow, the lawyer, fires off questions—“Why did you do this? What happen’d next? What did you do?”—leaning on a chattering little sequence of notes, which is picked up in the orchestra and comes to represent “hubbub among the spectators,” as the score says. It is the sound of suspicion, of rumor. Later in the act, a storm breaks on the coast, and this same motif is integral to the sonic swirl, indicating that Britten is engaging in more than nature-painting: the storm is also a gathering mob. In the centenary concert, the blazing precision of the St. Louis players never let you forget the motivic connection.

If the “chatter” figure rises from a murmur to a howl, a second leitmotif in “Grimes” follows an opposite trajectory, from violence to silence. In Act II, when Grimes admits that he poses a danger to his apprentices, he exclaims, in a jaggedly descending line, “God have mercy upon me!” Anthony Dean Griffey, in the title role, made it an agonized cry, the St. Louis brass and wind framing him with cold, savage timbres. The townspeople use the same intervals to sing “Grimes is at his exercise.” And the theme becomes the ground bass for the harrowing passacaglia at the heart of the act. At the very end, as Grimes dies and normal life resumes, Auntie, the local tavern keeper, dismisses a report of a sinking boat as “one of these rumors.” In a stroke of meticulous brilliance, Britten sets the line to the “God have mercy” motif, showing how the townspeople have gone from hounding Grimes to forgetting him. No staging was necessary to make Britten’s insight relevant: if you spend more than a few minutes in the global village, you find yourself in the Borough.

The anniversary obsession in classical music became stifling this year, with performances of Wagner, Verdi, Britten, and Stravinsky filling the schedule. Nonetheless, anniversaries serve a purpose when a composer is not yet an overexposed quantity. Last year’s John Cage celebrations revealed the variety and vibrancy of that much maligned artist’s output; likewise, the Britten festivities have shown how many musical glories lie beyond the familiar masterpieces, such as “Grimes,” “Billy Budd,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.

The Decca label has marked the occasion by releasing a boxed set of sixty-five CDs, titled “Britten: The Complete Works,” drawing mainly from the label’s library of recordings made under the composer’s supervision, with additional items from eighteen other labels. It isn’t quite complete: Britten’s “realizations” of Henry Purcell are missing, as are various unrecorded early and incidental pieces. (The NMC label has just released a group of long-unheard radio and theatre scores, including Britten’s sly, cabaret-tinged music for W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s 1936 play, “The Ascent of F6.”) All the same, the Decca set is a formidable and gorgeous object. Earlier this fall, I placed the music, around three days’ worth, on my computer; arranged it in chronological order; and commenced listening to the total Britten—from “Beware,” written around the composer’s ninth birthday, to “Praise We Great Men,” on which he was working at the time of his death, at the age of sixty-three.


The catalogue contains a fair number of pieces that could be described—to quote from a Britten essay by Albert Innaurato—as “well-made twaddle.” But Britten believed in writing for occasions large and small; for opera houses and village churches; for children, amateurs, and friends. The composer’s job, he said in 1965, is “to be useful, and to the living.” And the unremarkable works often have remarkable moments. Kildea, whose new biography avoids undue reverence, is right to characterize “Young Apollo,” a piano-and-strings piece from 1939, as “thin, gaudy.” For eight minutes, a great many notes are flung around A-major triads, to no obvious point. But a few pensive detours and harshly glittering sonorities take the score out of the category of the humdrum, and an abrupt ending leaves you wondering what it was all about. (It was, in fact, about Wulff Scherchen, a nineteen-year-old with whom Britten was briefly in love, before he found his life’s companion, the tenor Peter Pears.)

Listening year by year, you notice the recurring patterns: those germinal ditties, alternately innocent and sinister; the evocation of space through the positioning of spare figures over drones or ostinatos (evident as early as the String Quartet in F, from 1928); the scampering aliveness of the rhythms. At the same time, you feel the restlessness of Britten’s intellect. Allegedly an opponent of the avant-garde, he drew on twelve-tone rows, partly improvised structures, and a wealth of non-Western influences. The major works of his illness-racked final years—“Death in Venice,” “Phaedra,” the Third String Quartet—are no longer entirely of this world: to hear them in sequence is to experience, with uncomfortable immediacy, a dying man reducing his world to bare essentials, and then letting them go.

Fortunately, New Yorkers haven’t had to rely on recordings to explore the neglected zones of Britten’s output. The New York Philharmonic, in its birthday-week tribute, presented the 1949 “Spring Symphony,” a twelve-movement cantata that the orchestra had played only once before, in 1963. It is a typically ambiguous creation, moving from pastoral innocence to premonitions of upheaval (a setting of part of Auden’s “A Summer Night” asks, “What doubtful act allows / Our freedom in this English house”), and back to innocence, in a drunken chorus that sounds like the Borough mob in a less vindictive mood. Alan Gilbert, on the podium, gave glistening clarity to the insectoid instrumental writing. The mezzo Sasha Cooke caught the dread of the Auden movement. And the tenor Dominic Armstrong, stepping in for an ailing Paul Appleby, gave an incisive, characterful, and, under the circumstances, heroic performance—he had seen the score for the first time that morning.

Carnegie Hall is hosting a lively Britten series, and the Met handsomely revived “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But the prize of the Britten season has been a sprawling survey at Trinity Wall Street, which began in September and ends in January. Nearly a hundred Britten works have been woven into the church’s free lunchtime concerts and Sunday services. Julian Wachner, Trinity’s music director, has elicited near-impeccable performances on limited rehearsal time. He has the advantage of a skilled pool of younger freelance musicians, particularly those associated with the chamber ensemble Decoda. The oboist James Austin Smith, in “Six Metamorphoses After Ovid,” filled the church with his bold, keen sound. The violinist Anna Elashvili all but transformed the early, nondescript Suite for Violin and Piano, maintaining ferocious accuracy far into the upper register. Decoda’s core string players outclassed the Endellion Quartet, at Carnegie, in their rendition of the First String Quartet. (The Decoda ensemble will play the Third Quartet on December 5th.)

Notable young vocal soloists are tackling the song cycles. Nicholas Phan, a new star among Britten tenors, nimbly navigated the changing moods of the “Nocturne,” and the soprano Jessica Muirhead found sensuality and wit in the Auden cycle “On This Island.” Meanwhile, the Trinity Choir, one of the city’s finest, is delving deep into Britten’s choral repertory. Particularly striking was their rendition of “A.M.D.G.,” a 1939 setting of sacred poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. For the poem “God’s Grandeur,” Britten treats voices like instruments, giving them intricate, interlocking patterns: the line “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” takes on an unexpected Latin bounce. Trinity’s account of this fiendishly difficult music dazzled the ears and mind.

The most haunting event in the Trinity series so far was a performance, on Veterans’ Day, of “Cantata Misericordium,” composed in 1963 for the centenary of the Red Cross. It took place in St. Paul’s Chapel, which served as a recovery center after September 11th and houses mementos connected to the event. (One banner proclaims, “Oklahoma Loves You!”) As the music played, tourists crept around the edges of the space, examining 9/11 relics and casting puzzled glances at the performers. The cantata tells, in Latin, of the parable of the Good Samaritan, with affecting solos for baritone and tenor (Christopher Herbert and Steven Wilson) and imploring choruses. At the end, the singers chant, “Go and do likewise,” in lines that trail off into silence. The composer, a lifelong pacifist, seems sadly aware that his plea for mercy may go unattended. Still, he raises his voice, in the hope that someone might hear. Decades after his death, Britten is not done being useful to the living. ♦




Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings Op. 31



1. Prologue

(solo horn)

2. Pastoral

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun

Has but a little way to run,

And yet his steeds, with all his skill,

Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,

That brambles like tall cedars show;

Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant

Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock

Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;

Whilst the small stripling following them

Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,

In the cool air to sit and chat,

Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,

Shall lead the world the way to rest.

           Charles Cotton (1630–1687)

3. Nocturne

The splendour falls on castle walls

And snowy summits old in story:

The long light shakes across the lakes,

And the wild cataract leaps in glory:

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Bugle blow; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,

And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O sweet and far from cliff and scar

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,

They faint on hill or field or river:

Our echoes roll from soul to soul,

And grow for ever and for ever.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

           Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)

4. Elegy

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

            William Blake (1757–1827)

5. Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past,

Every nighte and alle,

To Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,

Every nighte and alle,

Sit thee down and put them on;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane

Every nighte and alle,

The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.

From Whinny‑muir when thou may’st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Brig o’ Dread thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may'st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire sall never make thee shrink;

And Christe receive thy saule.

If meat or drink thou ne’er gav'st nane,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.

              Lyke Wake Dirge, Anonymous (15th century)

6. Hymn

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,

Now the sun is laid to sleep,

Seated in thy silver chair,

State in wonted manner keep:

Hesperus entreats thy light,

Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose;

Cynthia’s shining orb was made

Heav’n to clear when day did close:

Bless us then with wishèd sight,

Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal shining quiver;

Give unto the flying hart

Space to breathe, how short so-ever:

Thou that mak’st a day of night,

Goddess excellently bright.

             Ben Jonson (1572–1637)

7. Sonnet

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,

Our gloom‑pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,

Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:

O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,

In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes.

Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws

Around my bed its lulling charities.

Then save me, or the passèd day will shine

Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,

Save me from curious conscience, that still lords

Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;

Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,

And seal the hushèd casket of my Soul.

             John Keats (1795–1821)

8. Epilogue

(solo horn – off stage)