What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

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Adrian Allan
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What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Mon Jul 31, 2017 7:44 pm

It is widely viewed as a masterpiece of modern repertoire, and because it has been championed by Julian Bream, and written by one of the UK's most prominent modern composers, there is almost an unquestioned perception that it is a masterpiece.

ie, the status that Nocturnal carries almost gets in the way of people in the guitar world having an honest opinion.

My honest opinion is that I am not a fan of the piece. I have tried to listen to it on many occasions, but it doesn't connect with me. I understand the concept of the piece being a set of variations and then a theme, but I find many of variations rather crass and repetitive, relying on consecutive octaves, bass lines that never really develop and other assorted harmonic effects that neither please the ear or the intellect.

What is the honest opinion of other people?

If people had heard this for the first time, and it was written by an unknown composer and played by an unknown player, would they really view it is a masterpiece?

Or are we witnessing a classic example of what psychologists call perception bias?
Or please convince me otherwise.
(or am I so musically dumb that I cannot see it as being a masterpiece)
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by oski79 » Mon Jul 31, 2017 8:30 pm

I didn't much care for it the first few times I heard it. However, hearing it live in recital a couple of times in the last few years has changed my opinion. Most recently, it was part of Marcin Dylla's program. The piece has grown on me, and I've gained a better appreciation for what Britten was doing. I wouldn't say it is among my favorite concert pieces, but next time I hear it I will listen closely with more interest.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Mon Jul 31, 2017 8:46 pm

oski79 wrote:
Mon Jul 31, 2017 8:30 pm
I didn't much care for it the first few times I heard it. However, hearing it live in recital a couple of times in the last few years has changed my opinion. Most recently, it was part of Marcin Dylla's program. The piece has grown on me, and I've gained a better appreciation for what Britten was doing. I wouldn't say it is among my favorite concert pieces, but next time I hear it I will listen closely with more interest.
When I watch Marcin Dylla play, even if I don't really like the music, I marvel at his technique and approach, so I know exactly what you mean.

For me, the Nocturnal was a bit of a missed opportunity. I don't think there is enough variety in mood to keep most people interested. The movements all have a similar dark, unsettled ambience. Britten could have included a wider range of moods - the dream section could have suggested peace or euphoria, or something else to break the monotony.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Digory Piper » Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:15 pm

I heard Ian Watt play the Nocturnal in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, at the 67th Aldeburgh Festival, on the same stage and on the 50th anniversary of Bream's first performance. I've known the piece since buying Bream's 20th Century Guitar LP back in the 1960s.

Nobody's mentioned Dowland yet, or the song (Come Heavy Sleep) on which Britten's variations are based, a familiarity with which would suggest why the euphoria Adrian looks for is an impossibility. Britten's variations display a profound sensitivity for the source material. Worth a listen to Bream talking about the piece's genesis on his My Life in Music DVD - he had to dissuade Britten from writing a piece for the lute. If you don't get it I won't try to convince you, but for my money it's one of a tiny handful of truly great pieces originally for the guitar - along with Falla's Homenaje, a piece Britten admired.

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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:16 pm

Digory Piper wrote:
Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:15 pm
I heard Ian Watt play the Nocturnal in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, at the 67th Aldeburgh Festival, on the same stage and on the 50th anniversary of Bream's first performance. I've known the piece since buying Bream's 20th Century Guitar LP back in the 1960s.

Nobody's mentioned Dowland yet, or the song (Come Heavy Sleep) on which Britten's variations are based, a familiarity with which would suggest why the euphoria Adrian looks for is an impossibility. Britten's variations display a profound sensitivity for the source material. Worth a listen to Bream talking about the piece's genesis on his My Life in Music DVD - he had to dissuade Britten from writing a piece for the lute. If you don't get it I won't try to convince you, but for my money it's one of a tiny handful of truly great pieces originally for the guitar - along with Falla's Homenaje, a piece Britten admired.
Homenaje - sorry, can't stand it! And the fact that it is relatively straightforward, but hardly ever is played seems to suggest that I am not alone in this view.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by RobMacKillop » Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:40 pm

I can't believe the quality of the Nocturnal is being questioned here, but then I remember the forum we are on. We've had many discussions about so-called modern music before, with the majority people against it. I think the last sentence, in brackets, of the OP pretty much sums it up. I will not return to this discussion, and will unsubscribe from it.

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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Hotsoup » Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:54 pm

^ouch, shots fired!

These kinds of threads pop up in hi-fi forums all the time. "Someone explain Trout Mask Replica to me" or "Is Pet Sounds over-rated?" There's too much music and too little time in this life. If something doesn't resonate with you, it's no big deal. It sounds like you gave it your best consideration.

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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:02 pm

I fully expected strong reactions.

This is because, as I described, the reverence that surrounds the work gives it an aura of religious infallibility.

This is why it is dangerous to place any work of art on such a pedestal.

Art should involve the free exchange of ideas and opinions, without personally falling out (we all love the clasical guitar, after all).

It should not descend into a battle between the devotees vs the heretics.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:19 pm

Hotsoup wrote:
Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:54 pm
^ouch, shots fired!

These kinds of threads pop up in hi-fi forums all the time. "Someone explain Trout Mask Replica to me" or "Is Pet Sounds over-rated?" There's too much music and too little time in this life. If something doesn't resonate with you, it's no big deal. It sounds like you gave it your best consideration.
When I went to college, I was taught that in the name of freedom of thought and critical thinking, it is always worthwhile to question everything, especially strongly held beliefs. Indeed, the strongest held beliefs are prescisely those which need to be held up to scrutiny.

Look at the trouble Copernicus got himself into.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Mon Jul 31, 2017 10:58 pm

The first few times I heard it I really didn't get it and some quite good musicians (non-guitarists) I knew at the time didn't much either - compared with the Walton Bagatelles for example. After I'd studied the score and then actually learned it - this being 1992 - I came to have the profound connection I still feel with it today.

David Starobin, at the Bath Festival we both attended Adrian (1995?) said the weakest bit is the Passacaglia. Its true that its as though Britten didn't think he'd be able to write a proper bass theme variation aka passacaglia, in terms of instrumental practicalities as a non-player (Rodrigo and others managed quite well) but my feeling is that despite this he worked around the situation and built a final variation that works in its own terms, albeit not a proper passacaglia as found in other of his works (e.g. violin concerto) and evidence of his connection with Purcell.

If there is an extra-musical point to the piece it is surely that it is, like the text of the song, a meditation on the connection between sleep and death; both in its descriptive, almost programmatic section titles, and the dramatic shape of the whole. It is serious and of course somewhat scary stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if some shy away from the Nocturnal because deep down they are uncomfortable with the almost psychiatric, at least psycho-analytic sub-text. Certainly, your suggestion that the composer might have occasionally materially lightened the mood, would have ruined the whole point. In fact, there is variety, but it is subtle and within a narrowly focussed range (my copy is not here so point to particular sections).

Where I would earnestly suggest you are making an error is to use terms like "religious infallibility" and "pedestal". If there is anybody, anywhere, who thinks they ought to admire it and go around lying that they do when the don't, they have a bigger problem than you have with the Nocturnal. Those of us who place it in the top handful of guitar compositions do so because its our opinion - however we have arrived at that doesn't really matter; but for instance, if my college tutor Gilbert Biberian had persuaded me I ought to admire and like it, and as a student I managed to despite myself, nearly 30 years later I would hardly have been as thrilled as I was by Sean Shibe's rendition on his recently discussed CD, or to have written that first paragraph. So i suppose I would quietly suggest care to avoid any possible suggestion of denigrating the motivations of others who have different musical tastes and experiences.

I think I've aired this before - but then we've been here before so why not - but it seems to me some people, like my big sister, have a sensitivity to dissonance and general unpredictability that mitigates against an appreciation of the likes of this piece. Others, like myself, enjoy and indeed thrive upon dissonance, complexity, irregularity and quickly get bored with too much of their opposites.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Altophile » Mon Jul 31, 2017 11:33 pm

I didn't like it the first time I heard it, and I don't like it today. I love the skill of Julian Bream and respect his musical opinions, but I in this case understanding the composer's intent wouldn't make the work enjoyable for me.

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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by woodenhand » Tue Aug 01, 2017 1:58 am

Hotsoup wrote:
Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:54 pm
^ouch, shots fired!

These kinds of threads pop up in hi-fi forums all the time. "Someone explain Trout Mask Replica to me" or "Is Pet Sounds over-rated?" There's too much music and too little time in this life. If something doesn't resonate with you, it's no big deal. It sounds like you gave it your best consideration.
I think this sums it up nicely. As the saying goes, "There's no accounting for tastes." Not everyone likes the same things, and if they did, it would be a pretty boring world.

Nocturnal is very hard to digest. You have to really work hard to understand it. It's like reading "Finnegans Wake." There are of course rewards for the effort once you figure something out, but we all have different thresholds.

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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by tubeman » Tue Aug 01, 2017 1:59 am

RobMacKillop wrote:
Mon Jul 31, 2017 9:40 pm
I can't believe the quality of the Nocturnal is being questioned here, but then I remember the forum we are on. We've had many discussions about so-called modern music before, with the majority people against it. I think the last sentence, in brackets, of the OP pretty much sums it up. I will not return to this discussion, and will unsubscribe from it.
+1
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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:35 am

There is a supreme irony here that I am being dismissed as being narrow minded for not liking the piece by people who refuse to even question the automatic assumption that it is a masterpiece, and would willingly close down any debate on the issue.

I had a similar debate with people after Mohammed Ali died. I questioned some of the actions taken in his life, particularly regarding his treatment of women. When I pressed the issue and asked "why is he the greatest?", the only response one person could summon was, "because he is".

Thanks, Stephen for your input. I certainly appreciate the music a little more as a result of your explanation.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Tom Poore » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:43 am

Adrian Allan wrote: I fully expected strong reactions. This is because, as I described, the reverence that surrounds the work gives it an aura of religious infallibility. This is why it is dangerous to place any work of art on such a pedestal.
The Nocturnal isn’t light listening. It demands attention.

It’s an incredibly tight work, closely following the structure of the theme on which it’s based. The variations are imaginative and finely crafted. (Note how the end of each variation subtly presages the next.) The writing for guitar is sui generis. And there are details often missed in a cursory hearing—for example, midway through the Passacaglia, Britten inverts its beginning, and even works in snippets of canon.

Belying its reputation as a tough nut to crack, it can be surprisingly effective in a live performance. But it needs a player of the highest expressive caliber. Bionic finger wigglers need not apply.

Some works belong on a pedestal. Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturnal” is one of them.

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