Britten in Oxford: An interview with Nicholas Cleobury

2013 sees the centenary of Benjamin Britten, one of the iconic musical figures of the twentieth century. As part of the centenary, Oxford is hosting a year-long festival of workshops, concerts, and other events in celebration of the composer’s life, works, and legacy. I spoke to the Festival Artistic Director Nicholas Cleobury about his passion for Britten and his position in the history of British music.

Do you think Britten was unique in the kind of status that he had and still has as a kind of national figure?

I think if you put together all of the things that he achieved and all the criteria you might use to identify that, you’ve got a body of works containing some undoubted masterpieces. And it’s a body of work, there’s a lot of it for a lot of people, whether you’re a little kid in a choir, or at the Royal Opera House. He left us with Snape Maltings at Aldeburgh, one of the major musical centres in the world now. He’s left us with a legacy of improved and continuing education, whereby singing and playing got better.  He had rigorous standards and, in his youth, he was quite rude about the standards of music-making in England at the time. He was also a fine conductor, I only saw him once or twice. He wasn’t the greatest actual conductor but he was such a supreme musician that he was able to get it right. And he was a wonderful pianist – he could have had a career in any one of those three. He could’ve had a career as a conductor, certainly a career as an accompanist-pianist, and if he didn’t conduct or play a note, he would still be a great composer.

So, to go back to your question then, is he the iconic British twentieth-century composer figure? I suspect you have to say he is.  My only reason to hesitate is that we have – just keeping to the twentieth century, let alone up to date now – an incredible number of very good composers. There’s Tippett; we’re sitting a few yards away from where William Walton was educated, he should be in the mix; Vaughan Williams – born in the previous century, but there nevertheless. And then a swathe of people like Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, and Thomas Adès and George Benjamin now. It’s incredible, the number of really good people. But I suppose, if one wants to play the numbers game, then it’s Britten. I’m not trying to deny Britten anything of what he achieved, just to say that he wasn’t alone.

Do you think with the swathe of composers coming through now that it’s possible for a serious composer to attain the same kind of public status now?

Well, I think there’ll be a status that the composers have. You’ve got people like Master of The Queen’s Music, Maxwell Davies, and Harrison Birtwistle and some of the other names that I should have mentioned too. I think they are respected, they’re up there and I think we need to thank Britten, and Tippett as well, for blazing the trail so that composers have that status. Music still doesn’t have enough status in this country, I think. Good, serious arts still haven’t got their place in the national psyche that I think they should have.

Is that a question of education?

It’s a question of education, it’s a question of persuading people of the importance of the arts. But there’re also a lot of instances where the arts are granted a higher place in the national psyche, and I think we’ve got Britten to thank for a lot of that. It’s funny for a pacifist-socialist he was very friendly with the Royal family, but in a way it put music up on the top table. Like it or not, it was there. So his legacy, hidden and not always absolutely overt, is very, very strong.

You’re working with the Southbank Sinfonia and there’s also been masterclasses as well, so there’s been quite a focus on education and youth as part of the festival.

Well I think so. He was a great educator himself and a place like Oxford is a place you can do it. We’ve had four out of the six masterclass-lectures on the voice groups, we’ve got two to come in Autumn. There is some tutoring and teaching of course in the Writing for Voices project and if people are around, particularly students, in the first weekend of July there’s a unique weekend at Wolfson with Hermione Lee talking about the Serenade, Paul Kildea who’s just done the new biography, Sir John Tooley who worked with Britten at the Opera House, John Fuller the W. H. Auden expert and others, all on Britten. We’re offering ten student bursaries, covering the cost of the weekend, and we’ve got it down now to a half-day price of £15 for students, which is actually pretty reasonable. We really hope that a lot of students will come. It’s Saturday the 6th, morning and afternoon, and Sunday the 7th, morning.  If you came to all three sessions you would firstly meet some people of whom new Britten and all absolute tip-top experts in their field.

And then there’s a weekend on Young Britten in September at the Northwall (19-21), with two experts talking and children from the age he was when he wrote string quartets and small pieces and so forth.  So education, talks and lectures are very much part of it.

So it’s as much about the Britten ethos as his music?

In a way. He’s such a fascinating person. He set texts wonderfully, so literature comes in hugely with him. He had a wide range of friends, and knew about art and politics. He’s a multi-faceted person, so his music does lend itself, and particularly in a place like here, to that kind of treatment as well as concerts.

And you yourself have lots of links to Oxford as well as to Britten, going back to being a student and so on.

Well, yes I do, I was organ scholar at Worcester and then I was Assistant Organist over the road at Christ Church.  I have done the Bach Choir for about 18 years and now live near here anyway, so it just went that way.

You go round the world doing all sorts of things but, like Britten, do you feel rooted to doing local things as well?

I love it. Britten loved Suffolk. Going to that bookshop in California and picking up a book about George Crabbe and reading a poem called ‘Peter Grimes’ set in a fishing village. To coin a much overused phrase: the rest is history. He absolutely loved the place and so do I. I was not born here – I’m from London and Kent – but Oxford for me is my sort of spiritual home. We live nearby and I enjoy doing things here.

Did you first encountered Britten’s music as a chorister?

Yes, I was a chorister at Worcester Cathedral and sang in a very early performance of the War Requiem when it came to the Three Choirs Festival. We sang, obviously Hymn to the Virgin, Ceremony of Carols, Antiphon, various things. And then it started from there.

Do you have any particular favourite pieces by Britten?

Well I think you’ve got to say Peter Grimes and Turn of the Screw, of the operas.  I’m doing Albert Herring this year, which I love, but I think Grimes and Screw would be my two. Also the War Requiem. I think the song cycles: the Serenade, and a particular one which is done less is the Nocturne, which I think is quite wonderful. In church music I would say two of the best choral pieces are Rejoice in the Lamb and Hymn to Saint Cecilia and the 3rd String Quartet.  Well that’s a flavour, there’s so much it’s quite hard to pick.

Apart from the Third Quartet, that’s all vocal music. So is that the area for you that he really excelled in?

Well I think so. This is an interesting question. Is he a great composer? I think he is, it depends where you put the bar, but let’s for the purpose of argument say that he is. But I think he’s a great composer mainly when he’s got words. I think the words take him into a new level. I mean there are wonderful pieces without words, but I think if you look at the vast majority of the good ones it’s when he’s got words and he needs them. And I will put my head on the block here: I think he’s the best setter of the English language since Henry Purcell.  I think he sets it better than Tippett.  I think Tippett writes equally great music in different ways and has written some wonderful vocal music. But I think the actual sheer technical thing in the setting of the words by Britten is terrific.

Mentioning Purcell, being rooted in history was very important to him.

Britten, Tippett and others went back to the music of Purcell’s time. It had started with Vaughan Williams going back to folk music and Brahms, even, going back to Couperin. Once the flush of the rich romantic period started, there were composers who were looking back. So the idea of looking back at earlier music was already happening. Britten and Tippett in the main went back particularly to Purcell, Tippett more so than Britten even back to the madrigals etc. And it’s continued, because you’ve got people like Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle, who I do see as the next two great ones after that, going back to the Medieval period. That was really important and the revival of the baroque, particularly Purcell, was very much in Britten.

Do you feel close to Britten in the sense of being rooted in English tradition, you have the chorister upbringing and you seem to have quite a focus on British music? 

I think so, but I’m not fixated on Britten. The person I met at Oxford was Tippett who I knew well. I think Tippett’s a towering genius, a different type, but a complete towering genius, some pieces of music that just go where no other British music goes in the twentieth century in my view. Britten is quite English; although there’s a lot of French influence it is pretty English and that’s fine. Music needs place.

The festival features new pieces, as well as celebrating Britten.  Is that something that’s important to you?

Well, in general terms, commissioning new pieces is something I have done all my life. I was a student here and lucky enough to be taught by Kenneth Leighton and Robert Sherlaw Johnson. I was at Worcester College which is known for its composition. For Britten in Oxford we’re doing six new choral works in  ‘Writing for Voices’ where they are tutored by poets and composers, so in a sense that’s commissioning. We aren’t actually commissioning any work as such but works have been commissioned by Britten-Pears and other organisations for the Britten legacy, because Britten left a great legacy. He did a small amount of composition teaching himself and so that should be a part of what goes on.

In the big concert in November, you’ll be conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, which is very much associated with Britten.

Well it was his chosen orchestra, he worked with them a lot. The manager, who used to play for Britten, is still around. I suppose one or two of the players who’d still be there did play for him, so that’ll be a really nice concert, but it’s not wall-to-wall Britten.

Especially working with that particular orchestra, do you listen to Britten’s own recordings of his pieces or do you try to come straight from the score?

Well I think you should sort of do both, I’m not being contradictory. We’ve got a glorious number of recordings now and YouTube etc. We’re daft not to use it. It’s how you use it and in what way and when that’s the important thing. If all you do is say, ‘Right, I’m going to listen to how Britten did it and try and either exactly imitate that or do nothing that he did because I think I can do it better’ or whatever, then that’s silly. But use it, learn from it. I think it’s really useful to learn from the composer and then there’ll be other ways. Britten was a superb musician, with a good conducting technique, so we can assume it’s pretty much what he wanted. But, if you compare him with Tippett, the other composer we usually put in the same breath as him, Tippett was more open to it being done in a different way than Britten was. He was less prescriptive. Both are completely fine.

And if you take the question of singing, and in particular Peter Pears, there was a school after Peter Pears died that sung just like him. But the thing now for tenors of subsequent generations is that they’ve really got to sort out how they’re doing to do it.  Are they going to imitate Peter Pears or are they going to find another way through? And it’s difficult because, as we learnt at the Peter Pears day at Keble, he had an extraordinary voice. Most singers have a sort of passaggio, (passing through a vocal ‘break’ to  higher notes) and it’s a tricky thing technically for them to deal with. Peter Pears seemed not have one. So a lot of the Britten stuff lies just on and around the passaggio, just below the top, which is quite high. It gives modern-day tenors, without Pears’s unique voice, some problems. But great ones, the top-line ones, have dealt with it. They’ve come to a different way. Will I do the Variations on Frank Bridge and Les Illuminations the same as Britten? I doubt it. But I will certainly listen to what he did and learn from it and respect it and then go away and look at it myself.

The festival has quite a healthy mix of an older generation of performers who have links themselves with Britten and then a younger generation coming through as well, was that something that was important to you, to get that balance?

I think it is. With the ‘Britten’s Voices’ we had four out of six who did work with him: I think Teresa Cahill certainly did, Ian Partridge absolutely did, Steuart Bedford for the Phaedra day conducted the première, and James Bowman, the great New College countertenor, certainly sung with him. So I was absolutely definite that for the ‘Voices’ series we had people that knew him.

But I think it’s important that if the music’s good enough it can be taken more than one way, and new generations coming through find new ways to do it is exceedingly healthy, I think. It would be a pity if people felt that ‘Britten did it like that, Peter Pears sung it like that, I have to do it like that.’ That would only work if the music was third rate. If the music is first rate it can take more than one way of doing it.

Something that struck me about John Mark Ainsley’s masterclass, which seems quite true of the whole festival, was that he was getting under the skin of the music but at the same time it wasn’t overly or excessively technical.

Well I think you have a problem with any masterclass, and that is if you start doing technical things then you’re going to muck the singer up a bit because they have their own teachers and their own way of doing it.  That’s what I do when I teach conducting and I work a lot with singers as a conductor, I barely talk about technical things. I talk a bit about technical things with the Oxford Bach Choir because they’re amateur and you need to remind them about breaths and placing and things like that, but with those that have got their own teacher I think it’s key to be careful. It’s quite dangerous so I’m glad that the approach has been on the music and the interpretation.

Is the involvement of amateur music-making, such as the Oxford Bach Choir, important too? That seems to relate to the Britten ethos as well?

Well, we’re finding more things about Britten. Something I touched on, but perhaps didn’t flag up enough, is his brilliance at writing for amateurs, the compositional brilliance to be able to write for one moment the London Symphony Orchestra and the next for some children or an amateur choir. It’s quite brilliant. Possibly not every single piece has come out as a masterpiece, but he wouldn’t mind that and he wouldn’t expect it. His work was a jobbing composer. He produced music. Music has a function – it is to be sung or played. You get a piece like Noye’s Fludde, it’s absolutely brilliant the way it uses kids and amateurs. So yes, he did a huge amount for amateur music, and so did Tippett to some extent, so Vaughan Williams to a large extent. Vaughan Williams did a huge amount for amateur music and there are other composers as well. But I think to come full circle, probably on balance, if you take all those things he did he is the iconic and leading British composer, with all that goes with it, of the twentieth century.

G. Masters

The Britten study weekend – Kind Ghosts: Britten’s Life and Influences – takes place at Wolfson college, July 5th-7th, featuring a range of speakers including musicians, writers and academics who will offer close examination of Britten’s life, works and the poets who influenced him. The programme has been devised and presented by Paul Kildea and Nicholas Cleobury and is a highlight of Britten in Oxford’s 2013 programme of concerts, workshop and events celebrating the composer. Full details and conference timetable can be found at 

Britten in Oxford are offering 10 student bursaries to attend the full weekend, courtesy of Oxford Evidentia. The bursary covers the full costs of the conference, conference dinners, lunches, teas, coffees, attendance at receptions etc., but excludes travel costs and accommodation.  Students should submit a supporting statement of up to 500 words describing how attendance at the conference will have a positive impact on their study. Applications should be made via email to 

For more information and concert listings, see, or for more centenary events please visit Britten 100


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