What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

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

Post by Jim Davidson » Tue Aug 01, 2017 7:42 pm

Isn't this very thread the best evidence that players don't blindly accept it as a masterpiece?

No work is objectively a "masterpiece". They are works which are well received by a broad consensus over time. It so happens that a great many people like the Nocturnal. It being called a masterpiece also doesn't force the implication that people who don't enjoy it must recognize it as a great work. Like what you want to like.

One thing I will posit is that all matters of subjectivity and taste aside, the Nocturnal is an objectively well written work. Some composers can be very crafty with limited compositional technique and others simply have good compositional chops. On paper, I think that the Nocturnal is well written.
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by markworthi » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:00 pm

Rasputin wrote:
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.
I hear what you're saying. Bach shows that there's nothing mutually exclusive about a cerebral work of art and an emotionally evocative one, though the relation between the two often seems dichotomous, especially in modern classical music. I wonder if that's because the modern approach, almost by definition, attempts new ways of expressing emotion without relying exclusively on the referents of earlier Western music. An atonal piece of music might be misconstrued as "cerebral rather than emotional" simply because its devices are unfamiliar and its emotional signals are not immediately recognized. I'm not much of a theoretician, but my own growing appreciation of modern pieces suggests an analogy with reading in translation: the more one learns of the new language, the culture from which its connotations derive and its other literature, the better one can apprehend its full meaning.

Then again, aside from all this, sometimes even a complex piece of music just doesn't work.

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

Post by Digory Piper » Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:08 pm

Sean Shibe wrote:
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
An excellent article, I've learnt a great deal from it. He discusses connections which I felt instinctively and mentions more that hadn't occurred to me. I touched in my second post on the Sonnet from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the string quartets, as well as the violin concerto. Goss discusses the insomnia/dream dichotomy: the Keats sonnet explores the borderline between sleep and death, as of course does the original Dowland song.

I was actually thinking of the 3rd movement from the second quartet, but I was wrong about that it is the third quartet that Goss discusses. I was present at the first performance of the third quartet by the Amadeus in Snape Maltings on 19 December 1976, a fortnight after the composer's death. Goss also makes connections with Curlew River and Death in Venice - I was fascinated by the idea of the Nocturnal occupying a pivotal position between early and late Britten. Curlew River, of course, is Opus 71, as I mentioned above, hence Nocturnal's next door neighbour in the catalogue. I was lucky enough to see Peter Pears in the roles he created in both Curlew River (at Snape) and Death in Venice (in London). I also heard Bream and Pears perform together, a programme of Britten (Songs from the Chinese, folk song arrangements) and lute songs, and Britten himself - as both conductor and pianist - at Snape in 1972 - so have form where Britten's music is concerned. But this is because I know and love the music, not because I put him on a pedestal :) . I never heard Bream perform it, the many times I heard him, though I of course have the original RCA and valedictory EMI recordings. I have Ian Watt's recording - and shall put things right by buying Sean's also :D

For all these admittedly personal reasons I was interested to hear if any other posters had views on how Nocturnal fits into the Britten canon, but, hey, this is a guitar forum. I was appalled by David Starobin's view (reported by Stephen Kenyon) on the Passacaglia - he couldn't be more wrong - and greaty enjoyed Christopher Freitag's analysis. Above all, thank you Sean for your intervention, and for pointing me at that superb article.

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

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue Aug 01, 2017 10:26 pm

Digory Piper wrote:
Tue Aug 01, 2017 9:08 pm
...
For all these admittedly personal reasons I was interested to hear if any other posters had views on how Nocturnal fits into the Britten canon, but, hey, this is a guitar forum. I was appalled by David Starobin's view (reported by Stephen Kenyon) on the Passacaglia - he couldn't be more wrong - and greaty enjoyed Christopher Freitag's analysis. Above all, thank you Sean for your intervention, and for pointing me at that superb article.
Well indeed the wider canon might be considered a bit off-topic, and while I know a few other Britten works, am myself not in a position to know whether Op 70 has a pivotal position as Goss suggests. The conversation or probably more likely, class with Starobin was over 20 years ago so memory cannot be totally relied upon, but I don't think the comment on the passacaglia was meant to do the piece as a whole down that much, and I could not now say whether DS was suggesting the variation fails or, as Goss says, really isn't actually a passacaglia at all!
The brief conversation I do remember better was about Poul Ruders whom DS was championing at the time, unfortunately he asked me if I approved of Ruders. approach to music - and I didn't. Oops.
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Tom Poore
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Tom Poore » Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:04 am

It might be germane to this conversation to describe my own exposure to the Nocturnal.

Like many, my first hearing was via Bream’s 1967 “20th Century Guitar” LP. At the time I encountered it, I was a self-taught amateur player. Didn’t know anyone else who played classical guitar, nor did I have a guitar teacher. Thus, my exposure to the Nocturnal was entirely solitary. There was no one to influence my opinion.

I was taken with the piece on my first hearing.

In my case, at least, where’s the groupthink that Mr. Allan thinks accounts for the Nocturnal’s reputation?

One might posit that, for me, it was Bream himself who influenced me to admire this piece. Well, on the same 1967 recording is Reginald Smith Brindle’s El Polifemo De Oro. I despise this piece. Didn’t like it then—don’t like it today. If my admiration for the Nocturnal is mere kowtowing to Bream, then why do I love the Nocturnal and hate El Polifemo De Oro?

I’m sorry Mr. Allan, but I find your groupthink notion condescending.

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

Post by Jeffrey Armbruster » Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:19 am

"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'm not entirely sure that you're referencing Brouwer here. Believe me, I'm an amateur. But just listening to (or playing) Brouwer, I've never found a single rhythm to be random, anywhere. Or, for that matter, in the Nocturnal.
But I haven't listened closely to everything by Brouwer. Hard to imagine though. He has a rigorous formal sensibility.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Wed Aug 02, 2017 3:02 am

Jeffrey Armbruster wrote:
Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:19 am
"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'm not entirely sure that you're referencing Brouwer here. Believe me, I'm an amateur. But just listening to (or playing) Brouwer, I've never found a single rhythm to be random, anywhere. Or, for that matter, in the Nocturnal.
But I haven't listened closely to everything by Brouwer. Hard to imagine though. He has a rigorous formal sensibility.
I was not referring to Brouwer, but the most extreme modernists.
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Adrian Allan
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Wed Aug 02, 2017 3:07 am

Tom Poore wrote:
Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:04 am
It might be germane to this conversation to describe my own exposure to the Nocturnal.

Like many, my first hearing was via Bream’s 1967 “20th Century Guitar” LP. At the time I encountered it, I was a self-taught amateur player. Didn’t know anyone else who played classical guitar, nor did I have a guitar teacher. Thus, my exposure to the Nocturnal was entirely solitary. There was no one to influence my opinion.

I was taken with the piece on my first hearing.

In my case, at least, where’s the groupthink that Mr. Allan thinks accounts for the Nocturnal’s reputation?

One might posit that, for me, it was Bream himself who influenced me to admire this piece. Well, on the same 1967 recording is Reginald Smith Brindle’s El Polifemo De Oro. I despise this piece. Didn’t like it then—don’t like it today. If my admiration for the Nocturnal is mere kowtowing to Bream, then why do I love the Nocturnal and hate El Polifemo De Oro?

I’m sorry Mr. Allan, but I find your groupthink notion condescending.

Tom Poore
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USA
I did later on say that many people liked the piece for sincere reasons. My point is that its status and provenance have resulted in a situation where people dare not question its true worth in the repertoire.
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Stephen Kenyon
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Wed Aug 02, 2017 7:33 am

Adrian Allan wrote:
Wed Aug 02, 2017 3:07 am

My point is that its status and provenance have resulted in a situation where people dare not question its true worth in the repertoire.
Adrian, I simply cannot believe you are still banging on that way. That is not the situation. Its status is deserved, and people are able to question that status! Enough already!
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Adrian Allan » Wed Aug 02, 2017 8:20 am

Stephen Kenyon wrote:
Wed Aug 02, 2017 7:33 am
Adrian Allan wrote:
Wed Aug 02, 2017 3:07 am

My point is that its status and provenance have resulted in a situation where people dare not question its true worth in the repertoire.
Adrian, I simply cannot believe you are still banging on that way. That is not the situation. Its status is deserved, and people are able to question that status! Enough already!
Maybe its status is deserved - my point is that in some situations some people might feel embarrassed in a group of other guitarists to say that they do not rate it. You get these situations in almost every branch of the arts. I think it is healthy to have regular re-evaluations and dissenting voices.
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Mark Clifton-Gaultier
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Mark Clifton-Gaultier » Wed Aug 02, 2017 11:41 am

Adrian Allan wrote: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 ... What is the honest opinion of other people?
Adrian - I've hesitated to contribute - others can speak far more eloquently than I on the subjective nature of "the masterpiece" - I do so now in order to return to your original question(s).

A little context - the guitar was not my first (or even second or third) instrument. I came to it quite by accident when a relative handed me a £10 "catalogue" instrument and a copy of, "A Tune a Day". Having some facility on piano and cello I had the digital dexterity to work through that strange little volume in a few days - I think that the most difficult piece in there was maybe "Greensleeves" or "Scarborough Fair" - anyway, something of that order i.e. a simple melody with sparse bass accompaniment. I thought little of the instrument, knew nothing of music written specifically for it and quickly turned back to other matters.

My second experience of the guitar - can't even remember the exact circumstances, it was thrust upon me - but it happened to be through the conduit of Julian Bream - I had absolutely no idea who he was. On the menu though were Walton's "Bagatelles", Maxwell Davies' "Hill Runes" and the Britten; there was more but it didn't stay in memory.

I was captivated by the sheer libertine audacity of the Walton - so much colour, impudence - even ferocity at times; the Maxwell-Davies, in total contrast, brought a deep haunting serenity - but with an undercurrent of ominous potential yet to be revealed. I was thoroughly mesmerised by the sheer expressive power of that little wooden box that I'd cast aside so dismissively. Then the Britten ... ?

Wow - that's what really did it for me - I felt an immediate emotional connection to the work on that initial hearing. Though I probably did read some program notes they wouldn't have meant a great deal - I was young, I hadn't heard any Dowland lute songs at that time and the little Britten that I'd come across was either for solo cello, or choir.
Adrian Allan wrote: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?
So the answer is a resounding YES.

Naively I immediately went out and bought the music - all of it. I tried to go from "Greensleeves" to "Nocturnal" in one jump - ha ha. Obviously I had no chance of success - but boy how I tried and tried until, when at last (I thought) I could handle the rhetorical subtleties of that inquisitorial opening I played it for anyone that would sit still long enough to listen. I can honestly say that I play guitar because of Benjamin Britten.

On appreciation of the Nocturnal itself:
You may have been misled from the outset by that crude description of it as a series of variations set before the theme (* see endnote). This idea is not only rather simplistic but both insufficient and inaccurate. "Nocturnal" is the complete antithesis of the theme and variation form - rather, it is (amongst other things) an exploration of the very nature of creativity.

* Stepan Rak's "Näkemiin Suomi" may fit this model better if you'd like a comparison. Attractive and easy if you're playing at Fellowship level.

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

Post by Adrian Allan » Wed Aug 02, 2017 12:14 pm

Mark - many thanks for the detailed and personal account. Due to this, I will give the piece a few more listens and look for the score. I am maybe too far into studying the pieces for the FTCL to switch from Koshkin to the suggested Rak, but I will seek out the piece and see what I think of it.

So far I am working on Chaconne; Paganini Grand Sonanta; Sevilla, Majorca, Cadiz; Three Stations on One Road, Usher Waltz. I'm having Skype lessons with Cheryl Grice, who never misses a trick and I need a harsh critic if I stand a chance of passing (plus I don't want to throw away £500 on a bad experience).
Last edited by Adrian Allan on Wed Aug 02, 2017 12:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Mark Clifton-Gaultier
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Re: What is your opinion of Britten's Nocturnal?

Post by Mark Clifton-Gaultier » Wed Aug 02, 2017 12:28 pm

Adrian Allan wrote:I am maybe too far into studying the pieces for the FTCL to switch from Koshkin to the suggested Rak
I wasn't suggesting it as an alternative Adrian - just an example of variations and theme. I think that it's a little low technically for inclusion in a Fellowship recital (not certain - it's a decade, at least, since I played it).

Good luck with the diploma - it need never be a bad experience (as there's always something to be learned from a performance) just an expensive one ...

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

Post by MrF1 » Wed Aug 02, 2017 2:41 pm

I'm relatively new to classical guitar...transitioned from the steel string acoustic world about 10 years ago. My education and understanding of classical composition and history is limited at best. My ear tends to be drawn to modern repertoire, while still enjoying more traditional classical guitar. I'm a huge Bream fan, so Nocturnal is part of my regular listening rotation. Another cd I enjoy on a regular basis is Graham Devine's British Guitar Music (Naxos). My visceral reaction to Nocturnal gives me a melancholy feel, but do enjoy the variations throughout the piece. My own playing seems to gravitate in the "variations" direction, so I suppose that might be the attraction. Not my favorite modern piece, but I listen to it on a regular basis and enjoy it for what it is (to me!).

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

Post by Kjetil Heggelund » Wed Aug 02, 2017 10:00 pm

I loved Nocturnal from the first time I heard it! Almost 30 years ago, and I love it even more now :-)
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