Sir Benjamin Britten: An Homage to a Genius
Grady Harp | Los Angeles, CA United States | 01/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"For those who are under the spell of the music of Benjamin Britten this filmed posthumous portrait by Tony Palmer of Britten the man is essential viewing. Originally created in 1980 it is only now released on DVD and the world's acceptance of Britten's music and humanity is even more poignant now. Palmer knows how to balance the biographical data, pictures of childhood and family, references to the composer as pacifist and a man whose personal convictions and life were at odds with his time, and weaves those essential elements with copious moments of Britten's amazingly large output of music in a way that allows us to understand this major musical genius of the twentieth century.
By introducing comments from Britten's housekeeper Miss Hudson, his nurse during his final illness Rita Thompson, his copyist and musical confidants Imogen Holst and Rosamund Strode, the Mayer family who housed Britten and his life companion Peter Pears when the two left England in 1938 in objection to the war, and the ongoing commentary from Peter Pears who knew and understood Britten better than anyone, Palmer allows us to appreciate how a man from the middle class in England rose to the heights of celebrity that were usually the domain of the aristocracy. Britten's stage fright, inferiority complex, chronic heart disease, work habits, and artistic convictions take on new meaning.
Britten's compositions are sampled throughout this film: early films scores for such propaganda movies as 'The Way to the Sea' with script by his close friend WH Auden will be revelations to most; the operas which began with the little work 'Paul Bunyan' and then soared to success with 'Peter Grimes', 'Billy Budd', 'The Rape of Lucretia' and 'Death in Venice' each of which is offered in performance by photos of original productions as well as scenes from later performances; the little known Church Parables such as 'Curlew River' and 'The Burning Fiery Furnace' written for the public to be performed by amateurs in churches; and song cycles and cantatas such as 'Phaedra' (exquisitely sung by Janet Baker for whom it was written), 'Les Illuminations', 'Nocturnes' and 'A Time There Was'. Though Palmer is under time constraints to limit the output of Britten he does dwell on his accomplishments such as the creation of the Maltings Snape School for Music in Aldeburgh, his still popular Aldeburgh Festival, and his commitment to the introduction of music for children.
One leaves the film longing for more scenes from works such as 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 'Turn of the Screw', 'Albert Herring', 'Gloriana', the enormously powerful 'War Requiem', the big choral works such as 'Spring Symphony' and the smaller choral works that are staples in choral literature. But we do get to visit Bali with him and see his fascination with the gamelan and Balinese instruments that influenced his writing subsequent to his visit, and we also are shown the places where he composed and have the privilege of watching him conduct his own works in rehearsal.
Some of the last footage of the film is his final visit to his beloved Venice, leaning out of his balcony with his nurse to hear the bells and sounds of Venice and the sea and then segue into the awakening scenes and final death scene from 'Death in Venice' with Pears as von Aschenbach discovering his true longings for Tadzio. It summarizes so much of Britten's life and gift to humanity, and it is a moment so touching that time stops. This DVD from KULTURE is brilliant and one that belongs in the library of every sensitive music lover. Benjamin Britten, 1913 - 1976. Too brief a life but such a rich musical legacy. Grady Harp, January 07"
A perfect film
J. Anderson | Monterey, CA USA | 12/21/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Beginning with Bernstein's profound recollections of Britten as "a man at odds with the world", this is a bittersweet, beautifully crafted portrait of Benjamin Britten and his wonderful music - such wonderful music, and so much of it included throughout the film. Tony Palmer is bar none the finest creator around of this kind of documentary filmmaking - splendidly rich and revealing, tautly edited, purposeful films that stride the virtually neglected genre like a colossus. Here is abundant footage of Britten's family detailing his 'perfectly ordinary' upbringing, all of it edited with taste and concision. At TT: 103 minutes, Britten's impossibly rich artistic and personal life is amply explored with the most sensitive affection, and much of that affection is centered on the music itself. Conversation with Peter Pears is front and center throughout, his commentary sweet and vital, intelligent and knowing. And plenty of Pears' singing too, his focused, inspiring, milky timbre forging masterpiece after masterpiece - fulsome footage, both filmed and live, of Peter Grimes especially, a number of pieces written specifically for him by Britten, and a good deal of 'home' footage of his time in America, and Venice, and the various locations along the eastern coast of England where he and Britten spent most of their life. Especially noteworthy are the long excerpts from Death in Venice, and Palmer twice visits a performance by Janet Baker of the cantata written for her by Britten, with Baker contributing some magnificent singing. Some champion moments come with footage of Aldeburgh town performances of the children's opera Noye's Flude, including Britten's own harmonious observations about children and music, especially his remarks about his desire to write 'useful' music for specific persons and occasions, a certitude he embraced throughout his composing life. One of the film's most beautiful segments comes with guitarist Julian Bream, alone in an English church, playing a piece Britten finally wrote for him 'a full ten years' after Bream first suggested it to the composer. The closing scenes surrounding Britten's death from heart failure in 1976 seal an unforgettable understanding of the beauty of a great man and his work. A Time There Was is stupendous filmmaking that brings fully to life the unique voice of one of the 20th century's greatest composers. Recommended without reservation. The world has lost its way, but we will always have the irreplaceable treasure of Tony Palmer's amazing body of films - something indeed to be grateful for."
MOVING MEMORIAL OF A GREAT COMPOSER
Klingsor Tristan | Suffolk | 05/10/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It would be easy to dismiss this film, made within a few years of Britten's death, as a piece of uncritical hagiography. It starts with a memorable piece from Leonard Bernstein where he expands in his usual articulate way on the ever-present dark side in Britten's music - the `gears constantly clashing' as he describes it. But the film itself touches relatively little on that side of the composer. There's nothing here about his reprehensible tendency to cut close colleagues and friends out of his life the moment they expressed the least criticism or even just became superfluous to his needs (Britten's `corpses' as he himself called them): there's also nothing here about his always controlled but undeniable paedophilia, movingly explored in John Bridcut's much more recent documentary: nor anything of his intolerance of performances of his own music that strayed too far from the way that he (and Peter Pears) saw it - e.g. the Vickers Grimes - or of new music that strayed too far from his own style - e.g. the walkout from Punch and Judy at his Aldeburgh Festival. All these less than attractive aspects of his personality are avoided.
Nevertheless, Tony Palmer conjures his familiar magic in constructing what is still a vivid and enlightening film study of his subject (cf. his musical biographies of Wagner, Walton, Arnold, etc.). As in much of his work, Palmer demonstrates the deftest of hands in combining archive footage plus his own original material with lengthy, illuminating interviews with family, friends and contemporaries. There is much delightful stuff from the archives - seeing the wonderful and humorous rapport between two keyboard masters as he plays 2-piano Schubert with Richter at Aldeburgh for example - as well as elucidating looks at Britten's rehearsal techniques for a performance (the premiere?) of The Building of the House - he was, it would seem, strict and workmanlike but friendly as a conductor, always concentrating on practical musical matters.
Among the interviews there is much that must now, nearly thirty years on, count as primary biographical material. Brother, sister and cousin are all interesting on his precocious childhood, egged on by an ambitious mother. His housekeeper on his dining tastes, the nurse from his final illness on his fears and acceptance of death, Imo Holst on the incredible speed of his writing, are all fascinating. But Pears, of course, is the primary source having been the composer's musical and personal partner for most of his adult life. Here, for the first time, he comes `clean' about the nature of their personal relationship - `gay' was apparently a word Britten didn't approve of in this context - and is deeply moving about his lover's death in his arms.
Musically, there is much to intrigue, too. Clips from BBC productions of Grimes and Billy Budd are reminders that these are notable historic performances that deserve to be issued on DVD. Janet Baker is riveting in the cantata (really a super-concentrated opera), Phaedra: the climax of Curlew River with Dickerson as the Madwoman, too, shows a master dramatic composer at the top of his form. The familiar, but still relevant, thread of `innocence outraged' is followed through the whole canon of works. The fascinating corollary - Britten as a Peter Pan who never wanted to leave his childhood (A time there was...) behind - is left hanging as a thought, one that others have subsequently pursued more fully.
Palmer can also be deeply moving in his use of cameras roaming round Britten's homes and especially his work areas. This is particularly so at very the end of his film where we pull slowly back from the desk and chair in Britten's last composing cottage in Sussex (bought to escape the noise of planes from the military airfields in his beloved Suffolk) to the desolate, lonely sound of his final orchestral work, the folksong arrangements he called A Time There Was... which Palmer adopted as the title for this film. The phrase itself, of course, is taken from the Hardy poem that Britten had previously set so memorably as the final song of Winter Words.
Inevitably there is much biographical material that has come to light since the making of this film. But Tony Palmer's piece still remains a moving tribute to one of the great composers of the last Century and is much recommended to anyone with an interest in its subject."
A loving, detailed homage to a master craftsman of music
Daniel Fergus Tamulonis | New York, New York | 10/03/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The steady, deliberate pace of this revelatory documentary is clear from the first images and with the addition of Leonard Bernstein's equally careful, caring and deliberate opinions of Britten and his extraordinary output, the viewer is taken on a veritable ocean voyage through Britten's life. Most astonishing to me were the extended excerpts from the operas, all of them in previously unreleased and still unavailable footage. There are BBC video recordings of many of Britten's operas (a Peter Grimes with mostly the entire original cast) that remain archived somewhere. It is to Palmer's credit that he was able to secure access to these excerpts.
Britten's life was a rich and productive one. Others have commented here that there is much that is omitted. This cannot be argued and yet, the documentary stands up very well. There is room for a second documentary, easily, one that would include, before it is too late, interviews with those artists who were close collaborators with Britten.
Most powerful were the final minutes of the film as Peter Pears, Britten's longtime companion, speaks frankly of their life together and of their relationship as two men who devoted their lives to each other. Pears' words and demeanor as he talks about life in another time as homosexuals and now as a gay man (he is unsure if 'gay' is a word he would approve to describe himself but admits that there is little hope of changing it now) are all the more moving, coming, as they do, towards the end of the documentary and with this viewer's knowledge that Pears died not too long afterwards.
The film carries with it an intense beauty and a heartbreaking melancholy. Aschenbach's final aria from 'Death in Venice' is included (again, with amazing footage of a performance of Pears in the title role). Performances by Janet Baker and Heather Harper also convey more of this piercing sadness and vulnerability.
As a young man I was fortunate to see Pears in the Metropolitan Opera's premiere (1974) of 'Death in Venice.' It was revived only once, twenty years later, in a stunning re-staging. I hope it isn't another twenty years before it returns."