This month we’ve asked Rush Hour Concerts Consulting Artistic Director Anthony Devroye to share his thoughts on Benjamin Britten. Please watch for Tony’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, Op. 48a for viola and piano at the end of the month in our March newsletter. 

In his illuminating chapter on Benjamin Britten from The Rest is Noise (2007), Alex Ross writes movingly of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes: “The music is poised perfectly between the familiar and the strange, the pictorial and the psychological… it gives shape to what a wanderer feels as he walks alone.” This description encapsulates what is so magical and elusive about so much of Britten’s music.

The viola was Britten’s boyhood instrument; though he would turn his attention fully to composing at a relatively young age, and would gain his greatest acclaim through opera and song, he came back to the viola for his 1950 composition Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, Op. 48a for viola and piano. Subtitled “Reflections on a song of John Dowland,” the piece is in the form not of Theme and Variations, but more accurately “Variations and Themes,” as quotes of two Dowland songs – Flow my tears and If my complaints could passions move – appear cryptically in the sixth and final variations of the piece, respectively. Biographer Neil Powell terms this approach a “strategy of ingeniously delayed gratification” to which Britten would turn again in a later Dowland-inspired piece, the Nocturnal for guitar, Op. 70.

Britten played piano for the premiere of Lachrymae, with the great Scottish violist William Primrose, at the third Aldeburgh Festival, which Britten had co-founded (with his companion Peter Pears and the writer Eric Crozier) – a perfect nexus of composer, performer and place. Ross says that Aldeburgh “featured [Britten’s] own music, contemporary works from Europe and America, and favorite repertory of the past; it was a kind of anti-Bayreuth, as intimate as Wagner’s festival was grandiose.”

If that description reminds you at least vaguely of what Deborah Sobol envisioned when she launched Rush Hour Concerts fifteen years ago, you are not alone. Debbie strove for intimacy and immediacy, a human connection as a respite from a hectic and increasingly digitized world. She wanted to take the music off its pedestal and allow listeners to connect to it in a truly personal way.

Ross also quotes Britten, from a famous 1964 speech in Aspen: “I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships… I want my music to be of use to people, to please them… I do not write for posterity.”

Lachrymae was a special piece to Debbie, from her performing days. She shared with me memories of learning and touring with this piece while she was pregnant with her first child (a boy, whom she and Bing would name Benjamin), of the toll that took but of the lasting bond she felt with the piece as a result. She loved this work for its poignancy and haunting mystery, as do I.

Selected Recordings

Selection 1:
Violin Concerto, Op.15

Selection 2:
Rare footage of Peter Pears, accompanied by Benjamin Britten on piano, singing a folk song Britten had arranged. O Waly, O Waly

-Anthony Devroye, 3/12/2014

Anthony Devroye enjoys a varied and active career as chamber, orchestral and solo violist and teacher. He has been violist of the Avalon String Quartet since 2004, and viola faculty at the Northern Illinois University School of Music since 2007.

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