What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

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

Post by Mickmac » Tue Aug 01, 2017 6:50 am

I am of the "I don't know about music but I know what I like" school, I'll admit but I do like the Nocturnal. And you are perfectly free not to. I don't get some of the other modern music that Bream recorded (Frank Martin, Henze) but there is something deliciously dark about the Nocturnal that I love. Is it better than de Falla's Homenaje which inspired Britten to write it? Is it better than Dowland's Come heavy sleep? I'm not sure but I think comparisons are invidious, here.

I think there is little point in naming a piece or even a player the greatest. Any piece no matter how well written is at the mercy of the interpretation and skill of the player.

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

Post by George Crocket » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:33 am

Classical guitar is not a mainstream instrument or genre. Included in the reasons for that is the lack of music written for the instrument by major composers. Whether you like the piece or not, we should all be very glad that there is a little such music. If you dislike it, don't listen and don't play. That it exists is something we should all celebrate.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Digory Piper » Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:04 am

Adrian Allan wrote:
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.
What's troubling me (as I think it does Stephen) about your OP and subsequent posts, Adrian, is your seeming insistence that defenders of the work are, ergo,"placing it on a pedestal", or "automatically assuming it's a masterpiece", in effect proving your point. Do you consider it possible to disagree with you and think it's a masterpiece without falling victim to either of these fallacies? My belief that it is a masterpiece is by no means automatic, but based on knowing it (as a listener) for 50 years. I do also happen to like much, but by no means all, of Britten (and Falla).

Where do you stand on Britten generally? - I'm thinking in particular of works which seem to me to spring from the same part of Britten's musical psyche - Stephen has already mentioned the violin concerto's last movement, but I'm thinking also of the Sonnet and Epilogue from the Serenade, movements from the string quartets, and even the solo cello suites. To have "lightened the mood" would indeed have been to have missed the point.

There are few enough works for guitar by great composers - none before the 20th century, of course (leaving aside transcriptions). I think I'm probably with Rob McKillop in thinking there's little point in continuing with this discussion.

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

Post by Adrian Allan » Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:11 am

George Crocket wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:33 am
Classical guitar is not a mainstream instrument or genre. Included in the reasons for that is the lack of music written for the instrument by major composers. Whether you like the piece or not, we should all be very glad that there is a little such music. If you dislike it, don't listen and don't play. That it exists is something we should all celebrate.
It's all very well saying, "if you don't like it, don't listen to it" when it is a mainstay of concerts. It is hard to avoid. In any case, I don't actively dislike it, I just said that it does not resonate with me, but some helpful comments here have at least helped me to understand it a bit better for its own merits.

In addition, I think it is healthy to assess the merits of works of art and have an open discussion about them.

Yes, it is good that it exists - a prominent composer has taken an interest in the guitar. However, my point is that it might have been a missed opportunity to give the guitar a new lease of life. The only non-guitarist composer to have captured the attention of the world by writing new music is Rodrigo with his Aranjuez. That is definitely a masterpiece.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:16 am

Digory Piper wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:04 am
Adrian Allan wrote:
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.
What's troubling me (as I think it does Stephen) about your OP and subsequent posts, Adrian, is your seeming insistence that defenders of the work are, ergo,"placing it on a pedestal", or "automatically assuming it's a masterpiece", in effect proving your point. Do you consider it possible to disagree with you and think it's a masterpiece without falling victim to either of these fallacies? My belief that it is a masterpiece is by no means automatic, but based on knowing it (as a listener) for 50 years. I do also happen to like much, but by no means all, of Britten (and Falla).

Where do you stand on Britten generally? - I'm thinking in particular of works which seem to me to spring from the same part of Britten's musical psyche - Stephen has already mentioned the violin concerto's last movement, but I'm thinking also of the Sonnet and Epilogue from the Serenade, movements from the string quartets, and even the solo cello suites. To have "lightened the mood" would indeed have been to have missed the point.

There are few enough works for guitar by great composers - none before the 20th century, of course (leaving aside transcriptions). I think I'm probably with Rob McKillop in thinking there's little point in continuing with this discussion.
I am not saying that people automatically like Nocturnal because it is viewed as a masterpiece. What I am saying is that many people in the guitar world are scared of questioning the assumption of the Nocturnal being a masterpiece for fear of being shot down in flames.

It is almost beyond worthy debate to question its greatness. As I have said, this sort of assumption is worrying an unhealthy. It used to exist with the view that "Segovia is the greatest player" and that was also a very unhealthy automatic and unquestioned assumption. Just look at the controversy that John Williams caused by even debating the issue and finding fault with Segovia.

Art should never be about such absolutes. It should be a place of free speech and opinion without the risk of being labelled an ignoramus.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Les Backshall » Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:28 am

It took me a while to really like this piece, but I didn't fully appreciate its emotional intensity until hearing it stunningly played by Sean Shibe earlier this year (in a very small venue ). Interestingly, although considered a masterpiece by guitar aficionados, it is very minor compared with the rest of Britten's output, and doesn't get a mention in lists of his important works.

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

Post by randalljazz » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:37 am

back in the stone age i proposed doing it for my senior recital. my teacher said, " well, you'll have to play it really well (or did he say "flawlessly"?), and you won't make anybody like it."

so i did sakura variations (the japanese version, differs from the williams edition) instead. great fun to play, very well received, with the added virtue of seeming much more difficult than it actually is.

as i have opined here several times: there is an embarrassing wealth of splendid music (yes, masterpieces from significant composers) written for guitar since about 1920, most of which languishes unperformed, unknown, unrecorded...
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:39 am

randalljazz wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:37 am
back in the stone age i proposed doing it for my senior recital. my teacher said, " well, you'll have to play it really well (or did he say "flawlessly"?), and you won't make anybody like it."

so i did sakura variations (the japanese version, differs from the williams edition) instead. great fun to play, very well received, with the added virtue of seeming much more difficult than it actually is.

as i have opined here several times: there is an embarrassing wealth of splendid music (yes, masterpieces from significant composers) written for guitar since about 1920, most of which languishes unperformed, unknown, unrecorded...
Can you mention a few of those which languish unperformed, as apart from guitar-player-composers I don't know many.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by randalljazz » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:49 am

"Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us." -- Ranier Maria Rilke

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

Post by Digory Piper » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:05 am

Les Backshall wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:28 am
it is very minor compared with the rest of Britten's output, and doesn't get a mention in lists of his important works.
What "lists", Les? Britten gave it an opus number, it falls between the Cantata Misericordium and Curlew River, so it's there in the catalogue. "Very minor"? - we are talking about a composer of numerous operas, church parables, orchestral works including symphonies, concertos and orchestral song cycles, the War Requiem, song cycles with piano, much church music and much more besides, a composer perhaps best known for his vocal writing.... It may be minor in the sense of being small, and a one-off, but that does not mean it isn't a masterpiece. Verdi's string quartet and Puccini's Crisantemi are minor works alongside the rest of their output, but that doesn't stop them being gems.

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

Post by Andrew Fryer » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:25 am

I like it, but I know there are people who hate Britten with a vengeance.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Sean Shibe » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:36 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.
As much as I expected to join Rob here, there are some charmingly considered responses to OP that I enjoyed reading; I'd honestly expected Godwin's Law to have come in to play by this point.
Adrian Allan wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:39 am
randalljazz wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:37 am
back in the stone age i proposed doing it for my senior recital. my teacher said, " well, you'll have to play it really well (or did he say "flawlessly"?), and you won't make anybody like it."

so i did sakura variations (the japanese version, differs from the williams edition) instead. great fun to play, very well received, with the added virtue of seeming much more difficult than it actually is.

as i have opined here several times: there is an embarrassing wealth of splendid music (yes, masterpieces from significant composers) written for guitar since about 1920, most of which languishes unperformed, unknown, unrecorded...
Can you mention a few of those which languish unperformed, as apart from guitar-player-composers I don't know many.
Berkeley - Quatre Pieces
Cyril Scott - Sonatina
These two spring to mind.
Adrian Allan wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:16 am
Digory Piper wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:04 am
Adrian Allan wrote:
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.
What's troubling me (as I think it does Stephen) about your OP and subsequent posts, Adrian, is your seeming insistence that defenders of the work are, ergo,"placing it on a pedestal", or "automatically assuming it's a masterpiece", in effect proving your point. Do you consider it possible to disagree with you and think it's a masterpiece without falling victim to either of these fallacies? My belief that it is a masterpiece is by no means automatic, but based on knowing it (as a listener) for 50 years. I do also happen to like much, but by no means all, of Britten (and Falla).

Where do you stand on Britten generally? - I'm thinking in particular of works which seem to me to spring from the same part of Britten's musical psyche - Stephen has already mentioned the violin concerto's last movement, but I'm thinking also of the Sonnet and Epilogue from the Serenade, movements from the string quartets, and even the solo cello suites. To have "lightened the mood" would indeed have been to have missed the point.

There are few enough works for guitar by great composers - none before the 20th century, of course (leaving aside transcriptions). I think I'm probably with Rob McKillop in thinking there's little point in continuing with this discussion.
I am not saying that people automatically like Nocturnal because it is viewed as a masterpiece. What I am saying is that many people in the guitar world are scared of questioning the assumption of the Nocturnal being a masterpiece for fear of being shot down in flames.

It is almost beyond worthy debate to question its greatness. As I have said, this sort of assumption is worrying an unhealthy. It used to exist with the view that "Segovia is the greatest player" and that was also a very unhealthy automatic and unquestioned assumption. Just look at the controversy that John Williams caused by even debating the issue and finding fault with Segovia.

I feel like [what I highlighted in bold] is the crux of what your post is about - is that fair to say? I'd agree with you, but don't really have much of a response except to point out my experience of what sort of players hold those respective views:

1) People in the guitar world scared of questioning the assumption of the Nocturnal being a masterpiece out of fear - generally amateurs
2) People talking of Nocturnal as a masterpiece (and yes, for better or for worse, sometimes placing it on pedestal) - academics and top-class players.

Neither of whom are immune to confirmation bias, of course, but if I coudn't stand Nocturnal but experienced the above divide, I might think I were missing something that my ability held me back from - and seek to understand it better through learning the piece and reading about it. I'd certainly recommend both to you, if for no other reason that it would lend your argument more authority. As a starting point there's a particularly elucidating essay by Stephen Goss: http://www.stephengoss.net/system/docum ... rticle.pdf

It's one of the few works that I've found to conjure up interest from non-guitarists post performance - I often have audience members (for whatever reason sans programme) ask "wow... what was that?!"
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:52 am

Adrian Allan wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 8:16 am
.... What I am saying is that many people in the guitar world are scared of questioning the assumption of the Nocturnal being a masterpiece for fear of being shot down in flames.

It is almost beyond worthy debate to question its greatness. As I have said, this sort of assumption is worrying an unhealthy. It used to exist with the view that "Segovia is the greatest player" and that was also a very unhealthy automatic and unquestioned assumption. Just look at the controversy that John Williams caused by even debating the issue and finding fault with Segovia.

Art should never be about such absolutes. It should be a place of free speech and opinion without the risk of being labelled an ignoramus.
Well you are making your first statement above as though it is unquestionably true, whereas my argument would be that such a statement cannot reasonably be made because you cannot know other people's minds to that extent. I also assert that whereas a few might feel they are in that situation, they are not that many; and if one were able to understand where they are coming from, they are perhaps having a bigger a problem with how they feel about their musicianship, their musical appreciation and knowledge, their artistic breadth, than the rest of the world is having with the fact that they don't like the Nocturnal.
I also am assuming that by 'many people' you mean a high proportion, perhaps a large minority? But do you have any actual real evidence to back your first assertion up?

We also need to tease out the point that many young college students may find themselves in a situation where their professors are assuming they will appreciate and want to learn the Nocturnal yet perhaps they are either not yet ready for it, or perhaps never will be, but will understandably may feel unable to express that. They may well in time grow into the piece, or they may not, but I doubt one can include them in your 'many' because they are in a particular situation. It would take a very self-possessed young person to tell tutor what they thought - depending on the character of the latter of course.

Here is another issue; we are talking about an artistic discipline, but are there objective standards within it? The answer, to me, is undoubtedly yes. For example, not everybody likes or rates highly, JS Bach, and yet I would argue that, objectively, he is one of the great composers. It doesn't actually matter to me whether one likes or rates him highly, but if a classical musician were to say to me, JS Bach is not a great composer, I would have to conclude they really have no idea what they are talking about. They may be beginners, or badly misinformed somehow or other, but as far as I am concerned they are objectively wrong, and if they were my educational responsibility I would want to do something about it.
If on the other hand a random (but completely not musicianly) person in the street says Bach is the worst composer in history, it means nothing; they are perfectly entitled to their viewpoint, but it is objectively incorrect.

Now, Britten is not Bach, but is he objectively a great composer?
Is it possible to determine whether the Nocturnal is a great work of art ? - (within our terms, as has been wisely noted, it doesn't get much attention within his wider oeuvre).
How, in fact, do we think about 'experts' - obviously not with the political connotation of last year's damning of experts, do we have a right to question them?
Do such (guitar related) experts describe the Nocturnal as a great guitar piece?
Do we have a right to find we don't actually like something even though an expert has told us it is 'great'?
Would one of those experts expect us to pretend to like something just because they say it is 'great'?
Would they care if we don't, and would they think we are "an ignoramus"?

I just realised I've been doing the one thing I detest when people are interviewed and they ask as question and then give the answer! Uuuurrgghh. Well there was a reason for it, which in these cases, the point is to raise that we can ask these questions, given the subject of the thread we should raise them, and answer them - so here are my answers. I am categorically not an expert, but I know a few and in my understanding;

i.Yes Britten is a great composer.
ii. Yes the art and science of musical analysis are able to determine and conclude whether the Nocturnal is a great work of art.
iii. Experts in music have earned the right to be respected, not that they get everything right all the time (real experts would acknowledge that they don't)....
iv. ... and therefore we always have a right to question them.
v. Yes Nocturnal is held to be a great guitar piece by people who have respected positions of expertise in the area.
vi. Yes we can dislike something for our own reasons, while still acknowledging that it has great artistic worth to other people.
vii. Nobody likes or respects dissembling.
viii. They might care if they felt we were missing out on something they value deeply, but if they are properly comfortable in their own being they should be able to allow somebody to go with answer vi.

A word on experts; people who know a massive amount more about music than the great majority of us do, who have much better aural acuity, much better musical memory, in many but not all cases much finer players, who have studied for years with people of similar attributes. Yes its about art not science, if they are any good they know that and take it into account, but it does not mean that there are no objective matters, insofar as that is meaningful; after all, in science, everything could change in a twinkling, its just that it takes a huge event for it to do so.

Other thoughts have been running around my brain, Adrian...
Do you possess a copy of the score? I really would never wish to come to a negative conclusion about a complicated modern work without consulting the score, which may just be me, but for a literate musician so much more can be understood by following the score with a recording. Its not a problem that one might think the only way to appreciate a piece is to follow the score, but for somebody who is struggling with it, its a good way to make progress.
So if you have no copy, I'd go ahead and get yourself one, and arm yourself with Sean Shibe's new CD, and listen to it really following the score, once a day for a fortnight. I thought I had two copies and was going to send you one, but I've not.

The Nocturnal is even older than me (slightly); if in all that time people really thought it was a case of Emperor's new clothes, or similar, we would know that by now.

The Segovia thing kind of proves the point. The position has changed with time. It was an unhealthy situation when he was on a pedestal and was virtually worshipped. We can respect his achievement without thinking he is the only way to go about things. Personally, I could not admire him more, but I cannot stand listening to him.

If, deep down where you don't like to look, you feel its a problem that you don't like this piece and you fear that others have a problem with this fact, let it go; nobody minds, honestly. Just allow others their own confidence in it.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:55 am

Thanks Sean's response, which is too large to quote.

I will have a look at the article. However, I'm confident that it's not a matter of my own ability to understand the music that is at fault, as I have been playing the guitar for 35 years. I'm much less of a fan of Goss than Britten, but I will give it a read.

I once had a similar debate about Bob Dylan with somebody - and we both concluded "if somebody needs to explain why Dylan is a genius, you will never get it".

For the record, I like music that works on both an academic and a popular level. Take a work like Invocation y Danza works of Rodrigo - there is enough melody to capture the general listener, but enough musical detail (such as counterpoint, key changes, techniques etc), to interest the academic. In that way it has universal appeal and speaks for broader swathes of humanity, and does not only make an appeal to a very limited elite. Those works are masterpieces to me, and that is how I would define a masterpiece. If the music needs to be supported by an essay to make sense, then it fails my personal definition of a "masterpiece".
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Digory Piper » Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:59 am

Thank you so much for the link to the Stephen Goss article, Sean - one to keep!

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