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This article is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

A Boy Was Born: Thoughts on the Britten Centenary Roger Caldwell

After early exposure to The Rite of Spring, though initially puzzled, the young Benjamin Britten hunted up other scores by Stravinsky, and was happy to regard him as ‘easily the greatest living composer’, a position from which he never deviated during Stravinsky’s lifetime. (In the event the latter’s death was to occur only five years before his own.) This respect was not, however, limitless: when Stravinsky produced his one and only opera, The Rake’s Progress, with a libretto by Auden, from whom Britten was by this time long-estranged, he commented acidly of it that he liked ‘everything except the music’.

Nevertheless his continuing regard – even awe – for the older composer is revealed in a (rather transparent) dream that he had of him, holding out one of Britten’s scores and pointing out its faults. Stravinsky, for his part, was – characteristically – less than generous about Britten. He asked rhetorically of his music: Who needs it? Commenting on the War Requiem he referred scathingly to Kleenex tissues and standing up for the Queen, thus damning the work for sentimentality and conventionality, and for turning its back on modernism. Such criticisms are hardly disinterested: it is clear that ‘the world’s greatest living composer’ was piqued by his junior’s sheer success and perceived him as a threat – to the extraordinary extent that in his old age he set some of the same texts as Britten. The latter’s Noyes Flood meets a response in Stravinsky’s The Flood, Britten’s canticle on Abraham and ...

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