The Week in Radio: A little Britten isn't enough to get hooked on classics


Let me begin with a disclaimer in the hope that it will absolve me from the daft, the ignorant, the downright imbecilic statements that are likely to follow. My knowledge of classical music is, to put it generously, sketchy. What I know about Benjamin Britten, the subject of Radio 3's latest season devoted to a single composer, wouldn't fill a Post-it note.

I know, for instance, that he is not the hero of a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald (that would be Benjamin Button), nor a rabbit dreamt up by Beatrix Potter (Benjamin Bunny) but an English composer of monumental importance who also starred alongside Sandra Bullock in the 2000 hit comedy Miss Congeniality. No, wait. That doesn't sound right....

In some ways, I like to think that my ignorance on one of the 20th-century's most famous composers makes me Radio 3's ideal listener. I am a blank canvas in dire need of education. In reality, though, it probably makes me its worst nightmare. Because my ongoing fixation with pop music, through which after several decades of intense study I have still barely scratched the surface, doesn't leave much time for wrestling with 1,000 years of classical music, let alone studying a single composer inside out.

I suspect what I need is an idiot's guide and Radio 3, to its credit, does not cater for idiots. There are other commercial classical stations that do that job perfectly well.

Radio 3 is also well practised in these intense surveys. In the past, there have been seasons on Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Schubert, all neatly tapping into the obsessiveness that characterises so many music lovers and their love of specific eras and artists.

So, Britten. In honour of the centenary of his birth, Radio 3 had relocated the entire operation to Suffolk, home of Aldeburgh Music and the Britten Studio, for its weekend-long tribute. This was, for the most part, a tribute to Britten told not through academics and experts offering lengthy reappraisals but through music performed in the place that he loved.

In Tune offered, for these ears at least, a gentle introduction to Britten's works from the famous Hymn to St Cecilia to the more obscure Lone Dog. Broadcasting from the Snape Maltings café, the presenter Suzy Klein and Britten biographer John Bridcut looked at the composer's fascination with childhood by studying the music he wrote while still a schoolboy and looking at his early adult works, which found him pining for this youth.

In Private Passions the irascible Maggi Hambling talked of a man who had "wrung the neck of classical music", as she and presenter Michael Berkeley studied her memorial to Britten, a massive pair of metal scallop shells on Aldeburgh beach.

I listened, in the end, to hours of music, nearly all of it for the first time. So what did I learn? That Britten's work is more accessible than I imagined though some of it strange and disquieting and that was the stuff I liked best.

I discovered, through various introductions and snippets of conversation, that Britten loved cricket and was a sore loser, and that he adored his friends but dropped them like stones if they didn't reach his exacting standards. Through Maggi Hambling, I learned that he was partial to Coronation Street, which made me warm to him immensely.

Crucially, I came to understand that much more than a weekend is required to really get to know Britten and view his work in the context of the music that came before and after. I realised that I am, indeed, Radio 3's worst nightmare, an ignoramus who lacks concentration and who, for all my supposed willingness to learn, would ultimately rather spend the weekend listening to Eels.

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