Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity

childhood time in the countryside
Benjamin Britten’s music makes me think of countryside and childhood

A cold clear blue-sky day in Oxford, children from primary schools across the county singing, young and old in the audience, everybody drawn together by the music. I went to see my 10-year-old daughter and her school choir at the Sheldonian today, taking part in a ‘Friday Afternoons’ concert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten – and it was fantastic!

It was also a chance to hear Professor Robert Saxton, who is professor of composition and tutorial fellow in music at Worcester College, answering questions from the schoolchildren about Benjamin Britten, who taught him. Was Benjamin Britten a grumpy teacher? Well – a bit sharp sometimes, if people weren’t up to scratch or weren’t being efficient; but he was also very generous and very kind.

Dr John Traill, the conductor, passed on the children’s questions during an interview with Professor Saxton before the choirs embarked on the Friday Afternoons songs. Professor Saxton was also asked for tips for composers, and described three important lessons he had learned from his own teachers – including Benjamin Britten. His advice struck me as being relevant to pretty much any creative work, including writing, so here it is, paraphrased:

  • Think of the whole when you are working on the part. If you’re composing a line of music, have the impact you want the whole of the composition to make in mind.
  • Make it real. Get other people involved. Being able to record something and play it back via computer isn’t the same as letting other people loose on it to see if it works. (I suppose this is like the scary but essential part when you give your writing to readers.)
  • Work very hard! However great your ambitions for what you hope to achieve, none of it will be possible without working away on your technical skills.

It was amazing to hear the children singing songs I remember from my time in the South Berkshire Music Centre junior choir thirty years ago. You can’t beat a truly thundering finish with Old Abram Brown.

Happy St Cecilia’s Day everyone!