Head to Head: Shostakovich vs. Britten

Posted on: September 25, 2013 in: Composer Focus

With both Shostakovich and Britten featuring in our Hot Tunes, Cold War series, it makes sense to make these two giants of twentieth century composition the focus of this edition of Head-to-Head. Eventually dying within a year of one another, the socio-political backdrop to their lives and their work differed significantly, but it did not stop them from forming a lifelong friendship.

Name: Dmitri ShostakovichShostakovich at Piano

Age: Born 1906 and died 1975, aged 68.

Nationality: Russian

Background: A child piano prodigy who entered the Petrograd Conservatoire at the age of 13, Shostakovich’s professional life was marked by his turbulent relationship with the government. He was denounced twice, the first time in Pravda, the Russian Communist newspaper in 1936 and the second along with a number of other “formalist” composers in 1948 for his non-Russian influences. Eventually, however, he served in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the USSR until his death.

Big Break: He won an “honourable mention” at the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1927. After the competition, he met conductor Bruno Walter, who was so impressed by the composer’s First Symphony (written when he was just nineteen) that he conducted it in Berlin later that year. The following year, it was also premiered in the U.S. by Leopold Stokowski.

Repertoire: With influences ranging from Stravinsky to Mahler, Shostakovich’s orchestral works include fifteen symphonies and six concerti, a set of twenty four preludes and fugues, three operas, and a significant amount of film music.

Hot Tunes Cold War Performances: We will be performing music by Shostakovich in every instalment of our Hot Tunes, Cold War series. His Symphony No. 14 will be included in Music from across the Iron Curtain, our next CloSer event will feature his score for the film The New Babylon and his Jazz Suite No. 1 will be included in our Jazz Kings concert.

Name: Benjamin BrittenBritten in 1946

Age: Born 1913, died 1976 aged 63.

Background: His father was a dentist, and his mother a talented amateur musician. His mother’s fears that their middle class status would be derailed by her own family background (her father was illegitimate and her mother was an alcoholic) led her to employ music as the principal means of maintaining their social standing, hosting musical parties in their house in Suffolk. In 1930 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. Britten lived in the USA from 1939-42, before returning to England with his partner, tenor Peter Pears.

Big Break: Britten first came to public attention with his 1934 work A Boy was Born, written for the BBC Singers. In the 1930s he composed prolifically and met the poet W. H. Auden, with whom he collaborated on works such as Our Hunting Fathers and Hymn to St. Cecilia.

Repertoire: Britten’s compositions range from orchestral to choral works, film music and chamber music. In 1942 Britten encountered the work of poet George Crabbe, which rekindled his homesickness for Britain and inspired him to write Peter Grimes, in which Pears played the leading role.

Hot Tunes, Cold War Performances: Our Music from across the Iron Curtain concert features Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the second movement from his Movements for a Clarinet Concerto, completed by Colin Matthews.