What I’ve Been Reading (November)

Cameron Pyke, Benjamin Britten and Russia (Boydell Press, 2016).

This exceptionally well-written and well-researched study by Cameron Pyke (Dulwich College and University of London) explores many of the ways Benjamin Britten engaged with Russian composers, musicians, and literature against the backdrop of Anglo-Soviet cultural and political relationships, particularly from the 1930s through the early 1970s.

Pyke organizes the book thematically, but there is a broad chronological shape to the whole. The first four chapters are devoted to Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, the Russian composers whose music most appealed to Britten. Pyke’s nuanced discussion of Britten’s changing and problematic relationship with Stravinsky is welcome and provides an additional context for understanding why Shostakovich became so important to Britten. The fifth chapter focuses on Britten’s visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and early 1970s. Chapter six considers Pushkin’s influence on Britten and the composer’s engagement with Russian performance styles. The final chapter returns to Britten and Shostakovich, focusing on their friendship in later life and their concerns regarding war and death.

To build his case, Pyke draws thoroughly from journals, letters by Benjamin Britten and others, new interviews with people who knew both Britten and Shostakovich or were involved with Britten’s trips to the Soviet Union, reviews of performances, and Britten’s library of scores. Pyke’s use of these sources is convincing; taken together, they support  his contextual and interpretive points. Furthermore, Pyke’s insightful analysis of Britten’s compositions, complete with many notated examples, highlights the composer’s preoccupations in light of the quartet of featured Russian figures he stresses in the first four chapters of the book. Indeed, Pyke’s discussions of the music of both Britten and Shostakovich throughout the study are high points in this exceptional book.

I highly recommend Pyke’s Benjamin Britten and Russia. It is one of the best studies of music I have read in quite some time.

Stan Pelkey

November 18, 2016

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