1953: DIZZY HEIGHTS AND CROWNING GLORIES
Britten Sinfonia Chief Executive and Artistic Director Meurig Bowen introduces our programme "Musical Everests: The Year 1953".
The extraordinary simultaneity of two major happenings 70 years ago – the ascent of Everest being announced to the crowds on the morning of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, 2 June 1953 – caught the imagination of many, and has given that year a particular historical glow as the otherwise apparently dreary, impoverished 1950s have receded further into the past.
Britten’s Gloriana at Covent Garden was the big thing musically, beyond the Westminster Abbey service itself, to mark that coronation year. But the best British piece written and performed mid-1953 wasn’t by Britten, but by his less feted near-contemporary, Michael Tippett. His luscious elaboration of baroque themes, to mark the 300th birthday of Arcangelo Corelli, was not a success at the Edinburgh Festival premiere in August, and can’t have been given a persuasively good performance (The Times described Tippett’s new work as a ‘grand confusion’. Ouch).
The passage of time, and superior performances, have since established Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli as a masterpiece of the string orchestra repertory. And the fact that Peter Hall chose this work to be the soundtrack to his 1974 film Akenfield certainly helped in establishing its reputation: 15 million people watched it on ITV when it aired. Imagine that! Both that so many people watched a relatively niche, gentle portrait of Suffolk village life, and that so many people heard Tippett’s wonderful music on mainstream television. Neither would happen now. Peter Hall had apparently first asked Britten to write the Akenfield soundtrack, but ill health prevented him from doing so. The Corelli Fantasia become so beloved by Peter Hall that he asked it to be played on a loop when he lay dying in 2017.
For Britten and Tippett, June 1953 was a tale of two quite different festivals. Tippett was the co-founder that year, with composer Priaulx Rainier and sculptor Barbara Hepworth, of the St Ives Festival of Music and the Arts. Both the festival, and Tippett’s connection with it, were short-lived compared with Britten and Pears’s already well established venture on a bleaker, east-facing English coastline. To mark the coronation, the Aldeburgh Festival commissioned six composers, including Britten, Tippett and Walton, to contribute variations on a theme from the previous Elizabethan reign – and our 1953 concert concludes with Walton’s characteristically spirited finale.
Tippett's Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli was popularised by its use in Peter Hall's adaptation of Ronald Blythe's book.
Conspicuously absent from Britten’s assemblage of composers for this Aldeburgh assignment were any women – less surprising back in the 1950s, of course, except that two contemporaries of his at the Royal College of Music, Grace Williams and Elizabeth Maconchy, could so naturally and rightfully have joined this boys-club that also included Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle and Lennox Berkeley.
In Maconchy’s case, this is no loss for us, because she was engaged at the time in writing a far more substantial work, her Symphony for Double String Orchestra. With an eventual premiere by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1954, it proved to be a breakthrough piece for her, after a lean decade, but it has since failed to gain the foothold in the string orchestra repertoire that some strongly feel it merits; Maconchy’s daughter, fellow composer Nicola Lefanu, regards it as one of her finest works.
I really hope that, in this much more enlightened and receptive time for music by female composers, our performances this week will give it a reputational shot in the arm.