Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten and
Dmitri Shostakovich:  Kindred Spirits
By Tracie Price

I have heard the question often in the past few weeks:  "What does Shostakovich have to do with Britten?"   I have spent the past few days researching interesting anecdotes about the two great composers, yet in my heart I find myself wishing to answer this question by saying "Just listen, and you will hear."

Shostakovich was one of Britten's earliest influences.  After attending a concert performance of Shostakovich's brilliant and unjustly maligned opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 1936 (after it was blacklisted by Stalin), Britten commented:

Of course it is idle to pretend that this is great music throughoutit is stage music and as such must be considered.  There is some terrific music in the entre'acts.  But I will defend it through thick and thin against these charges of "lack of style" . . .  The satire is biting and brilliant.  It is never boring for a secondeven in this [concert] form.

Britten also added, "The 'eminent English Renaissance' composers sniggering in the stalls was typical.  There is more music in a page of MacBeth than in the whole of their 'elegant' output!"  Perhaps a seed of camaraderie was planted even back in those early days, as Britten himself also had to endure the disdain of the 'eminent English Renaissance' composers.

Indeed there are a number of instances in Britten's work where one may hear the influence of Shostakovich, some of which show up in his early operas Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes.   However, it would be many decades before the two great composers would actually meet face to face and strike up their warm and meaningful friendship.  In 1960, Shostakovich was in England for the London premier of his First Cello Concerto, and though Britten was overwhelmed with work, and had declined an opportunity to participate in a broadcast discussion with the Russian composer, he nonetheless wished to meet him at the concert.  The two shared a box and during the concerto, Shostakovich witnessed  "Britten bobbing up and down like a school boy, even nudging him with happiness at the music."   Afterwards, Shostakovich introduced Britten to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and thus began a remarkable friendship and collaboration with the cellist that would last until Britten's death.   Through this friendship, Britten's connection and bond to Shostakovich would grow strong.

Though Shostakovich was only able to visit Aldeburgh once, Britten and Pears traveled several times to Russia to stay with Shostakovich and his family.  The fact that their friendship and mutual respect blossomed in spite of the language barrier speaks to the deep way in which the two were able to understand each other through their music.  Britten was the only Western composer with whom Shostakovich was able to strike up a true friendship. 

Laurel E Fay's book, Shostakovich:  A Life includes the following enlightening description of their admiration for each other's work:

"Shostakovich was well enough to attend the Moscow recital of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten on 25 December 1966 and to greet the new year 1967 with family and friends at Zhukovka, together with Britten and Pears.  Britten was a musician Shostakovich respected deeply.  Having made each other's acquaintance in 1960 a the London premiere of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, the two maintained contact, in part thorugh their mutual friend Rostropovich, paid each other reciprocal visits, and exchanged letters and music.  When he received the score and recording in the summer of 1963, Shostakovich was profoundly affected by Britten's War Requiem, recognizing in it a profound work of conscience.  Elevating it to rank alongside his beloved Das Lied von der Erde, he proselytized the work to students, to colleagues, to all he could persuade to listen.  Shostakovich also valued Britten's opinion of his own music more than most.  He was touched by the latter's high evaluation of his Second Cello Concerto because "[Britten] is a very fine composer and a good judge of music."  As Pears later observed in one of his travel diaries:  "I think he [Shostakovich] has not so many listeners whom he can so wholeheartedly respect as Ben."  In a 1968 interview on young composers and trends in music, Shostakovich expressed his desire to see "more Brittens.  Russian ones, and English ones, and German ones.  Various.  And of different generations.  What attracts me to Britten?  The strength and sincerity of his talent, its surface simplicity and the intensity of its emotional effect."  The capacity to create music that transforms the listener, having heard it, into a different persona rare gift he recognized that Britten possessedwas, in Shostakovich's view, the loftiest aspiration any composer could harbor."

When one digs down to the core of compositional and artistic styles of Britten and Shostakovich, it can be seen that they share some important aspects.  Perhaps the most noticable is their love and great respect for the works of Gustav Mahler.  Both composers revered Mahler's work, and Shostakovich held his
Das Lied von der Erde
on a pedistal above all other works.  Additionally, they both wrote for specific performers, for example, the cellist Rostropovich. I think above and beyond these things, however, is their remarkable philosophical similarities such as their need to write for people and to connect with their listeners.  In this respect, Fay writes regarding Shostakovich:

"Still, if his tastes in music were more catholic than his sometimes strident rhetoric might suggest, Shostakovich nonetheless favored more conservative contemporary idioms, the music of Benjamin Britten, for instance.  His distaste for dry, inexpressive music and his opposition to composition by rational system or mathematical formula were genuine.  Direct engagement with his listener, the need to connect through his music with ordinary people, remained a central concern for Shostakovich."

Similarly, in his speech upon being awarded the First Aspen Award, Britten made several telling statements including the following:

"...I would like to think you are suggesting that what is important in the Arts is not the scientific part, the analysable part of music, but the something which emerges from it but transcends it, which cannot be analysed because it is not in it, but of it.  It is the quality which cannot be acquired by simply the exercise of a technique or a system:  it is something to do with personality, with gift, with spirit.  I quite simply call itmagic:  a quality which would appear to be by no means unacknowledged by scientists, and which I value more than any other part of music."

He also makes the statement that he writes for people, and additionally that the listener needs to accept some responsibility upon himself and make as much effort as the composer and performer.  For Shostakovich and Britten, music did not exist in a vacuum, only for their own expressive needs.  They must share their music with their countrymen, colleagues, and the public at large. 

To me, here is where the true essence of this remarkable friendship lies.  It is important to note the outward expressions of their mutual admiration, such as Shostakovich's dedication of his
14th Symphony
to Britten, and Britten's dedication of The Prodigal Son to Shostakovich, but I feel their connection was on a much deeper and more profound level.   It is for this reason, we feel it is not only appropriate, but necessary for us to bring these two great composers together, side by side, for the listening public to experience their common spirit for itself.

Shostakovich and Britten