Britten: Soirées Musicales

Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. Soirées Musicales, Op. 9. Completed 1936, scored for 2 each flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, xylophone, snare drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, castenets, tympani, harp or piano, and strings.

In the summer of 1930, a precocious British teenager was asked by a fellow party guest what he planned to do with his life. ``I'm going to be a composer,'' answered Benjamin Britten. ``Yes,'' came the response, ``but what else?''

This attitude, though perhaps insensitive, was not entirely unreasonable. The great American composer Charles Ives supported himself by selling insurance. Borodin was a chemist, Tchaikovsky a bureaucrat, Bach a church organist, and Bernstein and Mahler made ends meet by conducting the New York Philharmonic. But Britten, like many before him, was determined to find success on his own terms. In 1935 he landed a position scoring films for a small documentary company, the GPO Film Unit. He was successful at this assignment, producing music for such odd titles as Conquering Space and Banking for the Millions. It was an important time in his life; the pressures of the job forced him to rapidly improve his compositional skills, and at the same time he met the poet W.H. Auden, who would become a lifetime collaborator and companion.

In 1936, Britten was asked to provide music for a documentary entitled ``Men of the Alps.'' For this film, he chose to orchestrate five piano pieces by Gioacchino Rossini, the prolific Italian opera composer of a century earlier. He later adapted the pieces into the present suite (the title translates as ``Musical Evenings''), which was used in 1938 as the score for a singular ballet, Soirée Musicale. Nor was this the end, for in 1941 Britten orchestrated another group of Rossini pieces, calling them Matinées Musicales (``Musical Mornings''). The two suites were then combined into a new ballet, George Balanchine's Divertimento.

Britten would go on to become one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. When considered as in the context of his total output, Soirées Musicales is a relatively minor effort that only hints at things to come, but the work is no less enjoyable for being a precursor to greatness.

© 1998, Geoff Kuenning

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