Classical Music / Forty years on, a hit: It was the official opera of the Coronation, but the record label was chicken. Michael White explains

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The Independent Culture
LAST NOVEMBER in a civic hall in Swansea, Decca Records wrapped up some unfinished business that had been hanging around to nobody's credit since the Coronation, 40 years ago this week. They recorded Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, the official Coronation opera. And it was a significant thing to do because Gloriana was the only major work by Britten never to have made it on to disc: the one glaring omission in an otherwise almost comprehensive service undertaken by Decca as Britten's 'by appointment' record company.

When the finished product goes on sale on 14 June - timed to catch not only Coronation anniversary fever but also the opening of the Aldeburgh festival on Friday - it will make a strong commercial statement on the health of home-grown opera. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts and the cast reads like a roll of honour of the English lyric stage. So the job has been done properly. But it has taken long enough, given that rumours of an imminent recording began when Britten was still alive (he died in 1976) and have resurrected periodically ever since - not least, when ENO staged the piece during the Eighties with a cast that, as it turned out, Decca didn't like.

If you ask Decca now why they held off for so long, they mention internal politics and economics - a piece like Gloriana could take 20 years to recoup its costs - and the inherited mistrust of a score which for years has been discounted as a piece d'occasion of uncertain value, notorious for having failed its first performance. And stories abound of how ill-conceived that first performance was: a glittering premiere on 8 June 1953 when Covent Garden was garlanded to greet the new-crowned Queen and commandeered by white-tied diplomats and politicians who knew they were going to get an opera about the first Elizabeth and expected something along the lines of a Merrie England pageant. When it proved to be a tragic love story that presented the Queen as a lonely woman forced to sacrifice her happiness for her political position, they were not moved to applaud except in legendarily muted terms. From then on, we are told, the opera's fate was sealed.

But the truth about the early life of Gloriana isn't so straightforward. It was not a total failure: it ran quite successfully during the rest of Covent Garden's 1953-54 season and then toured to South Africa. Admittedly, it was attacked in the correspondence pages of the Times, where Dr Marie Stopes denounced the score as 'inharmonious . . . wearisome . . . unsuitable' and, by implication, unhealthy. But it was just as fiercely defended by other contributors like Woodrow Wyatt and Ralph Vaughan Williams. And according to the stage director Colin Graham, who attended the first night, even the gala audience response wasn't so offhand as the stories tell. The quiet applause, he says, was the consequence of people clapping in kid gloves.

So why does history record that Gloriana was a failure? It seems with hindsight that the piece was spiked: the victim of a gathering resentment in the British music world against the accolades that Britten was collecting at the time with too-apparent ease. Since the success of Peter Grimes in 1945 his career had moved centre-stage. Still in his thirties, he had his own opera company, the English Opera Group, and his own festival at Aldeburgh. In 1952, the year before Gloriana, he had been offered the music directorship of Covent Garden (he didn't take it) and honoured with publication of a hagiographic symposium on his work. And now, through his friendship with Lord Harewood who acted as an intermediary with Buckingham Palace, he had the Coronation commission and a CBE to go with it.

That there would have been no Coronation opera in the first place but for Harewood's efforts was quietly ignored. Gloriana was taken as yet another instance of the Brittenic monopoly. It sent Sir Thomas Beecham (a distinguished musician but a cramped human being when he was challenged by genius greater than his own) on a round of clubland sniping about English music falling prey to sods and buggers; and it stood little chance of serious evaluation on its merits. Altogether, this was not a creditable chapter in the modern history of music. And where the odd cheer did break through it was qualified with caution. The Musical Times of July 1953 offered a range of views for and against but prefaced them with an apology that the issue 'show(ed) signs of being a Benjamin Britten number'.

Forty years on, there'd be no need to apologise. Britten's place at the head of the English music table is barely disputable; his audience appeal is close to populist; and his credit in the record market is clear from the fact that this month sees not only the Gloriana release but a new Beggar's Opera in the Britten realisation, a first transfer to CD of Owen Wingrave (both Decca; 14 June), and a new Peter Grimes from EMI. If he were still alive, his memories of the Coronation would be sour; but he'd be pleased to know the gloves, in every sense, were off.

The Aldeburgh festival opens on Friday with 'Owen Wingrave' (0278 453543).

(Photograph omitted)