The composer’s duty

In 1964, Benjamin Britten was chosen from over one hundred nominations to be the first recipient of Aspen Award, established the previous year by Robert O. Anderson of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies to honor “the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities.” Britten was acknowledged “as a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter,” who “through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose and destiny.”

In his acceptance speech–which the novelist E.M. Forster called a “confession of faith from a great musician”–Britten laid out what really amounts to a declaration of artistic principles. The following frequently quoted excerpt provides what I think is an excellent introduction to the composer’s music:

aspen-award

“I certainly write music for human beings–directly and deliberately. I consider their voices, the range, the power, the subtlety, and the colour potentialities of them. I consider the instruments they play–their most expressive and suitable individual sonorities…I also take note of the human circumstances of music, of its environment and conventions; for instance, I try to write dramatically effective music for the theatre–I certainly don’t think opera is better for not being effective on the stage (some people think that effectiveness must be superficial)…I believe, you see, in occasional music…almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers, and certainly always human ones….

“I can find nothing wrong…with offering to my fellow-men music which may inspire them or comfort them, which may touch them or entertain them, even educate them–directly and with intention. On the contrary, it is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.”

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