Synopsis

Synopsis

The initial aim of this project is to examine the concept of a ‘Britten style’ of performing Mozart, with particular reference to the annotated scores, preserved in the archive at the Britten-Pears Library. The archive houses the entire libraries of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, including a large number of scores they used for performance. This collection demonstrates Britten’s interest in, and affinity for, the music of Mozart, there being extant recordings of several piano concertos, symphonies, other ensemble music, and not least, the opera Idomeneo, recently released on DVD. However, the archive also holds Britten’s scores of these works, and these afford fascinating insights into the working methods of Britten as a performer.

In total, leaving the amount of annotation aside for one moment, the library catalogue lists over five hundred and fifty scores attributed to Mozart that were owned (or part-owned) by Britten. Inevitably then, the first task has been to record the extent of annotation, thus to make a direct contribution to the cataloguing of the archive itself. Of course, not all of these annotations were in Britten’s own hand. Predictably, some were made by others close to Britten, including Peter Pears, Rosamund Strode, Imogen Holst and Joan Cross, or by lesser-known individuals. There were also a significant amount of annotations on the same score in various hands (particularly in the instrumental parts, as we might expect), or where the author of the annotation remains unknown.

Of those judged to have a significantly high level of annotation in Britten’s own hand, there were thirty-six separate scores, of which thirty were different works. These consisted of full scores (i.e. those likely to have been used for performance/conducting), study scores, miniature scores, vocal scores and instrumental parts. This process of deduction produced a concise list of works that formed the basis for further investigation. However, whilst leafing through some of these it soon became apparent that a certain number of works would demand a significant amount of attention on their own. For instance, the source material connected to Britten’s performance of Idomeneo was so large and vast in terms of quantity and detail, it would warrant an entire sub-project in its own right.

Of the remaining scores that appeared in the original search criteria of over five hundred and fifty, were collections donated to the Britten-Pears Foundation (many were bestowed after Britten’s death) by other people and are currently not thought to have been used by Britten for performance purposes; works by other composers that were transcriptions of original works by Mozart; works by other composers that were dedicated to Mozart; or indeed, original works by Britten that offered an elucidation to unknown or missing sections of Mozart’s works. A set of well-known examples of these are Britten’s original cadenzas to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in Eflat, K.482. There were also numerous editions of works by Mozart that formed part of Peter Pears’ private collection. Whilst these might prove fascinating in isolation and may even form part of an investigation if there appears to be an overlap with the scores owned or used by Britten (particularly in light of their performance history together), they do not at this time fall inside the remit of this project.

The annotations themselves that are of most interest in Britten’s Mozart scores consist of either tempo markings, dynamics, articulation and phrasing, conducting directions (such as a reminder to count ‘in 3’) or usually a combination of them all. Upon examining this source material a number of research questions have already arisen. For example,

  • what for Britten was the primary purpose of the annotations?
  • what do they tell us about the development of performance practice in the 1960s and ’70s in England?
  • how do the annotations contribute to the larger scale articulation of the music, or to the identification of a ‘Britten style’ of performing Mozart?

Prof. Michael Harris (co-collaborator) has recently recorded a version of Britten’s annotations of Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Winds with students at Birmingham Conservatoire, thus demonstrating that Britten’s interpretations and musicianship can usefully be communicated to a new generation of practicing musicians.  It is hoped that the source material and any subsequent analysis offered here will likewise disseminate Britten’s practice-based and embodied knowledge, not of how Mozart’s music ‘should’ be performed but how it can be, using modern instruments and in modern contexts.