What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

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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 12:34 pm

Thanks for your last response, Stephen

You are correct, I do not own the score and have only glanced at a copy in the past. I will read the Goss article and see if I can a score to follow on the dark web.

Of course I do not know how many people are afraid to admit that they are not so enamoured with it, and I am only guessing based on my experience of life and how people act. I sit in on teachers' meetings all the time, listening to the latest claptrap on how to teach following the latest trendy ideology, and nobody dares to speak out and call out the nonsense for what it really is. It's a matter of human nature to conform to viewpoints and opinions.

In making the argument, I probably overstated my case. I do actively dislike the piece, but I just want to question the automatic belief that it is a masterpiece. I just find it uncomfortable when opinion, even if it is from learned folk, morphs into fact -and the assumption over Segovia being the greatest is a fair comparison. I think it is even healthy to debate Bach from time to time if needs be - but it would be hard to argue against the vast output of Bach if nothing else. Here, we are talking about one piece only, and I know a few people who do not rate Nocturnal whose opinion I respect, and who have a wealth of experience in music.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Sean Shibe » Tue Aug 01, 2017 12:46 pm

Digory Piper wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:59 am
Thank you so much for the link to the Stephen Goss article, Sean - one to keep!
it's a goodie, isn't it
what kind of strings do you use though

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

Post by Christopher Freitag » Tue Aug 01, 2017 12:52 pm

Fascinating thread. What is missing, though, is any real discussion about the music itself. We are clearly in the realm of opinion here: "...it fails my personal definition of a masterpiece." That's completely fine. There are plenty of pieces in the repertoire that I don't care for, and others that I love for no reason I can put my finger on.

But wandering onto the thin ice of "I don't understand what other people hear in this" is risky, and ascribing motives to their appreciation (or even doubting it) is heading for the open water.

I'll admit my bias up front. I am very fond of the work. It's the first "modern" work that really touched me. I played it on recital more than once and had the great pleasure of playing it for Bream himself. My tattered score has his signature on the title page. Without going into a full analysis, here are the two things I really admire about it.

First, I think the overall expressive content of the piece works brilliantly to evoke a troubled dream landscape. The episodic nature of the individual variations reflect the fleeting images and scenes that make up dreams...or at least, my dreams. And the point of resolution where the passacaglia gives way to Dowland's song is, to me, one of the best moments in music that I know. Not just guitar music.

OK, all of that is just my opinion. The second point is something I can ground in the music itself. Britten's technique in Nocturnal is really clever. The piece is often described as a set of variations that work towards a theme, but that isn't accurate. Dowland's tune is embedded directly in each variation--not as a literal quotation but as a set of pitches and intervals that always appear in the order they are found in the song. So, when the song itself finally does appear it comes as a kind of fulfillment. The inventiveness that Britten displays in doing this, and the overall sense of unity that it very subtly gives to the entire set, is what gives it masterpiece status for me. I think that listening for that opens up a different perspective on the work.

I'd be perfectly happy to respond to a countervailing argument that Britten's musical ideas are flawed, or that his working out of them is not that good, or that the work doesn't suit the guitar for this or that reason, or any other specific criticism of the work itself.

Anything else is not "an exchange of ideas" but an airing of opinions. And the only response to an opinion is to agree or disagree.
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Tom Poore
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Tom Poore » Tue Aug 01, 2017 1:55 pm

Adrian Allan wrote: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".
In a nutshell, you’re saying that if you don’t understand it, then it’s not a masterpiece. Is that really a valid definition of a masterpiece? For example, there are people who are utterly bored by every note of Bach. They just don’t get it. And if you have to explain it to them, then—by your definition—nothing by Bach is a masterpiece.

No single person decrees what is or isn’t a masterpiece. That decision is based on consensus, preferably among experts. (What defines an expert, of course, is a whole new debate.) There’s nothing under the sun on which every last person agrees.

Bear in mind also that Britten’s “Nocturnal” has been around for over half a century. That’s a long time for discerning musicians to listen and study. They’ve found virtues in the piece that make it worthy of admiration. Some of us during this thread have tried to explain them to you. You’re telling us the virtues don’t exist. Well, perhaps to you they don’t. So either you’re right and the consensus is wrong, or the consensus is right and you’re wrong.

You might consider the possibility that your opinion isn’t all that.

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

Post by Cipher » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:23 pm

please delete thank you.
Last edited by Cipher on Tue Aug 01, 2017 10:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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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 2:24 pm

Tom Poore wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 1:55 pm
Adrian Allan wrote: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".
In a nutshell, you’re saying that if you don’t understand it, then it’s not a masterpiece. Is that really a valid definition of a masterpiece? For example, there are people who are utterly bored by every note of Bach. They just don’t get it. And if you have to explain it to them, then—by your definition—nothing by Bach is a masterpiece.

No single person decrees what is or isn’t a masterpiece. That decision is based on consensus, preferably among experts. (What defines an expert, of course, is a whole new debate.) There’s nothing under the sun on which every last person agrees.

Bear in mind also that Britten’s “Nocturnal” has been around for over half a century. That’s a long time for discerning musicians to listen and study. They’ve found virtues in the piece that make it worthy of admiration. Some of us during this thread have tried to explain them to you. You’re telling us the virtues don’t exist. Well, perhaps to you they don’t. So either you’re right and the consensus is wrong, or the consensus is right and you’re wrong.

You might consider the possibility that your opinion isn’t all that.

Tom Poore
South Euclid, OH
USA
I gave my opinion of what constitutes a masterpiece and provided an example to back it up.

I would like to know who the team of experts is who get to decide on what is or is not a masterpiece. There has never been a vote, as such. It is merely the basis of received wisdom, and it is human nature to get pulled along into consensus. It would be surprising if this has not happened with this piece of music, given the fact that it was championed by no less an artist than Julian Bream.

When something is given almost an irrational level of high regard, when an individual starts to question those assumptions, they are inevitably met with a backlash that wholly does not fit the importance of the debate.

And by the way, the status of music changes with time. At one point, Barrios was net held in high esteem. John Williams championed Barrios, and now who dares to question Barrios' status as a composer (like Segovia did - and because Segovia did, it was fine to say that Barrios was overrated - and I know that John Duarte used to agree with Segovia on that). So we are pulled along with the consensus more than we perhaps realise.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:39 pm

Hear hear Cipher.

Such a shame to make a squabble of this. I don't put that much store in consensus as such, but when a piece is chosen for performance - again and again - by players whose performances of my favourite material are chock full of musicality and understanding, that tells me there is merit in it whether I can see it straight off or not. If Nocturnal is such a piece for you, Adrian, surely the constructive question to ask is how you can get into a position to appreciate what other musicians appreciate in it.

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

Post by Christopher Freitag » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:41 pm

Adrian Allan wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:24 pm
I gave my opinion of what constitutes a masterpiece and provided an example to back it up.
Yep. You gave your opinion. And you provided a work that to you is an example of a masterpiece. So far, so good.
I would like to know who the team of experts is who get to decide on what is or is not a masterpiece.
Apparently, it is you. See above. Still good, so far. Nobody questions your right to an opinion. Now, we could take a digression into the meaning of the word "masterpiece" but why take the time? I'll just note that a work could be a masterpiece even if nobody liked it. There is both an objective and a subjective definition.
There has never been a vote, as such. It is merely the basis of received wisdom, and it is human nature to get pulled along into consensus. It would be surprising if this has not happened with this piece of music, given the fact that it was championed by no less an artist than Julian Bream.
Well, but then Bream commissioned and championed a lot of works, some from very eminent composers. Not all of them are so squarely in the repertoire, nor are all acknowledged as masterpieces. In fact, some are quite forgotten.
When something is given almost an irrational level of high regard,
in your opinion
when an individual starts to question those assumptions, they are inevitably met with a backlash that wholly does not fit the importance of the debate.
The thing is, I think you invite the backlash going back to your original post. You can't refrain from characterizing those who don't share your opinion of Nocturnal as either uninformed or somehow in the thrall of some mass delusion about the piece. Can't you simply leave it at "I don't like the work, and I don't understand why anyone else would?" I feel that way about LOTS of things (and people), but I try to stop short of impugning their taste, character, intelligence, or moral fiber.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by brooks » Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:46 pm

Stephen Kenyon wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:52 am
ii. Yes the art and science of musical analysis are able to determine and conclude whether the Nocturnal is a great work of art.
Unfortunately, this is not quite true, as it is based on premises which would themselves constitute begging the question. Despite thousands of years of philosophizing on the subject, we have no universally accepted, definitive aesthetic criteria for what constitutes a "great work of art", the underlying reason such discussions are seldom productive. It's one of the eternal questions - like freedom of the will versus determinism - that we are still looking at with the same perplexity as the ancient Greeks did. In the domain of art, time is the ultimate arbiter, and I would say fifty years - only a percentage of a single human lifespan - is insufficient to decide whether a work will enter the canon of humanity's immortal masterpieces. When a lot of great players and critics have lauded a work, it indicates it is probably worth some effort to understand it better if it doesn't immediately speak to one, but in itself it doesn't resolve the question of whether or not it is a great work of art.
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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 2:52 pm

Some good points made above by Christopher. I can't remember ever saying that people's moral fibre etc was at fault, and apologies if I gave that impression. I'm sure that many people do love the work sincerely, it's just worth questioning assumptions every so often if they become far too entrenched, which I personally feel they have done in the case of Nocturnal, as I feel they did regarding Segovia 30 years ago.

Indeed if you suggested that Segovia was not the greatest 30 years ago, you would have been excommunicated from a guitar society. Reading the reviews of his concerts in the 1980s in Guitar International, which I know were rather frail, you would think that he never played a note wrong.

Step aside from the guitar world and all of its very strong beliefs, the Nocturnal leaves many an educated listener rather cold. And my point is that the true masterpieces like the Aranjuez transcend all of those boundaries. In my HUMBLE OPINION lol.
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Stephen Kenyon
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue Aug 01, 2017 3:40 pm

brooks wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 2:46 pm
Stephen Kenyon wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 11:52 am
ii. Yes the art and science of musical analysis are able to determine and conclude whether the Nocturnal is a great work of art.
Unfortunately, this is not quite true, as it is based on premises which would themselves constitute begging the question. Despite thousands of years of philosophizing on the subject, we have no universally accepted, definitive aesthetic criteria for what constitutes a "great work of art", the underlying reason such discussions are seldom productive. It's one of the eternal questions - like freedom of the will versus determinism - that we are still looking at with the same perplexity as the ancient Greeks did. In the domain of art, time is the ultimate arbiter, and I would say fifty years - only a percentage of a single human lifespan - is insufficient to decide whether a work will enter the canon of humanity's immortal masterpieces. When a lot of great players and critics have lauded a work, it indicates it is probably worth some effort to understand it better if it doesn't immediately speak to one, but in itself it doesn't resolve the question of whether or not it is a great work of art.
But then we are debating the definition of 'great' and I did not say the Nocturnal is necessarily in "the canon of humanity's immortal masterpieces", merely - all the things I said and don't need to say again. Purely within the terms of the questions Adrian posed, my purpose was to state the opinion that there are good reasons for it having the reputation which he seems intent on questioning. I agree with all your caveats but feel it takes the question to a different place. Maybe not, I've run out of steam on this one!
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by markworthi » Tue Aug 01, 2017 3:52 pm

Adrian,

I am glad you have asked for opinions on a piece of music that you feel has received too much merit. I wish the focus of this discussion had remained specifically on why we esteem or dislike Nocturnal. However, I find the premise that people are pulled into an irrational consensus or are afraid of confronting received wisdom rather condescending. Today, anyone can spout off all sorts points of view, from anodyne to heretical, free of cost! (I am doing so now...:)). And it's a lot of work, with no reward, to pretend to like something that you don't. Rather than positing that people who admire Britten's Nocturne have been fooled by Groupthink, it's probably a better starting point to accept that their views are, though incomprehensible to you, authentic and ask why the piece has enjoyed such longevity and what, exactly, people like about it.

Still, I am happy for this discussion. Each of these conversations that arise here from time to time has confirmed for me that how one receives a piece of music depends on how one listens to it. In a conversation on this forum last week, also concerning a modern piece-- one that had been commissioned by Julian Bream-- I kept returning to the video performance on Youtube. The first time I heard it, really just as a passive listener or "consumer" of music, I was not particularly moved by it. The second and third times, I asked myself to identify exactly where I thought the pieces weak points arose. What choices had the composer made that did not succeed (in my opinion)?

Then I heard the composer's description of what he was intending, and I listened again, this time considering his point of view and of the excellent guitarist who was playing the piece: what technical decisions did she make to bring to life the emotions she thought the composer was shooting for? At each review, my reception of the composition changed, and while I can say I still don't really "like" that particular piece, my perception of it changed a great deal. I am not sure that the composer's goal was not necessarily to elicit passive enjoyment. Instead, I really believe that the composer was demanding a more active engagement with the piece, an intellectual deciphering, that is every bit as valid as composing something that is simply pleasing at first pass.

To me, the ultimate test of whether or not a composition should be esteemed is whether or not it does two things: captivates the audience in some way; and evokes an intellectual and/or emotional (not necessarily pleasant) response-- and I think the intellectual component of a work of art is every bit as important as its emotional effect. I think this is true of Nocturnal, which succeeds in both.

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

Post by Jeffrey Armbruster » Tue Aug 01, 2017 4:27 pm

Adrian, is it just this piece that you dislike, or do you dislike "modernist" pieces in general (say, Brouwer's sonata).

By analogy, if someone said "Les Demoiselles (sp?) D'Avignon is wildly overrated; I don't like it" are they really saying, "cubism is bunk"?
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Rasputin » Tue Aug 01, 2017 4:44 pm

markworthi wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 3:52 pm
I am not sure that the composer's goal [the composer of Catalan Peasant with Guitar, I think] was ... necessarily to elicit passive enjoyment. Instead, I really believe that the composer was demanding a more active engagement with the piece, an intellectual deciphering, that is every bit as valid as composing something that is simply pleasing at first pass.

To me, the ultimate test of whether or not a composition should be esteemed is whether or not it does two things: captivates the audience in some way; and evokes an intellectual and/or emotional (not necessarily pleasant) response-- and I think the intellectual component of a work of art is every bit as important as its emotional effect. I think this is true of Nocturnal, which succeeds in both.
I sort of agree with you there but that there is something different about kind of intellectual engagement demanded by this kind of music, and that it in the end it is this particular kind of engagement that people of AA's mindset reject as unmusical. Bach is fairly cerebral music, I would have said, but the intellectual engagement that it seems to invite feels very different to me from the intellectual engagement that modern pieces seem to invite. I can't put my finger on it but somehow, in the Bach, it seems to be more intimately connected with the actual music.

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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 4:54 pm

Jeffrey Armbruster wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 4:27 pm
Adrian, is it just this piece that you dislike, or do you dislike "modernist" pieces in general (say, Brouwer's sonata).

By analogy, if someone said "Les Demoiselles (sp?) D'Avignon is wildly overrated; I don't like it" are they really saying, "cubism is bunk"?


Not really a fan of Brouwer - I find it too deeply rooted in guitar patterns rather than harmonic logic. I like some dissonance, but when the whole piece is dissonant and, even worse, the rhythms also appear random, then it's really not for me. I am preparing for an exam at the moment - a performance diploma called a FTCL. For the modern pieces, I have chosen two pieces by Koshkin, so that's where my tastes lie, I suppose. I was learning Invocation y Danza, but I realised it was too hard for me to play without a great element of risk when under pressure.
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