Benjamin Britten - Pittville Park, Cheltenham Festival 1949

Of Britten and Beyond

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In a three part blog, London-based composer Michael Zev Gordon guides us through the process of writing a commissioned piece for Cheltenham Music Festival.

In 2011-12, while composing a new work for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Bohortha, I wrote a blog: about how the piece came into being, the choices I made, the highs and the lows of writing. When I mentioned this to Meurig Bowen, director of Cheltenham Music Festival, he pressed me to write another for my 2013 Festival commission; a companion to Benjamin Britten’s undisputed masterpiece, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. And so, what I thought was a one-off exercise in self-reflection has started up again.

I’m still right at the beginning of the process but the impulse to write has begun. The oven is switched on, I know the size of the tin, I have an idea of the flavour of the cake. But how I’m actually going to make it, the ingredients and their order, is mostly a mystery.

Still, I’m further on than I usually am at the start of a piece. I might have tried to ‘be myself’ by writing a work that would distance itself from the Britten but I knew then I would merely be fighting it the whole time. Instead, I will do what I have often done before: write a piece in relation to another – and make poignant expression out of the relationship.

Quickly flowing from this decision has come the notion of my piece beginning in the night-time world of the Serenade but then moving away from it. My piece will be a trajectory, physically and spiritually, from darkness towards light.

One sultry afternoon in Italy last summer, a clear set of dark, nocturnal sounds came into my head – clearly the gestures for the start of the piece. But what unnerved me, as I wrote out the first bars, was that I had no text.

What comes first, so the old question goes: music or words? But frankly it’s never happened to me this way round, even if music has often ‘taken over’ from the words in other pieces. How could I possibly find a text that would fit?

But I did – a poem by Byron entitled My Soul is Dark. And when I realized its scansion was the same as the first poem in Britten’s set, and that I had quite unconsciously written rhythms and pulsations alluding to the Britten, I knew this was no coincidence. These were, and are, good signs for things to come.

The finished piece will be premiered in the final concert of the Cheltenham Music Festival, Sunday 14th July, featuring tenor Toby Spence, horn player Richard Watkins, the City of London Sinfonia and conductor Stephen Layton.