Benjamin Britten - On the 110th Anniversary of his Birth on November 22nd 2023 - a deeply moving tribute by Graham Johnson


Benjamin Britten

The Sorcerer's Apprentice-Accompanist

Graham Johnson

I found this wonderful monologue to be a remarkably detailed, engaging, humorous yet profoundly affecting 'tribute composition' to Benjamin Britten by the composer, advisor, accompanist and music copyist Graham Johnson. He worked with Britten and Pears in close collaboration all his life, devoting much of it to the selfless dissemination of the composer's poignant songs, dramatic operas and orchestral music to the wider world. Strangely in my twenties I had fully embraced the so-called avant garde (how odd this term now) as a writer and attended Stockhausen’s New Music courses as an observer in Darmstadt in the late 1960s. It had as deep a musical effect on me, this close contact with the composer, as upon Johnson who highlighted such importance in his tribute.

This intimate and self-effacing address to us is an extraordinarily 'musical' assembly of the personal experience of love and the relation to the nature of genius by the heart and soul. Yet no instrument is played. Simply the voice of intense lyric nostalgia in the manner of Schubert in Winterreise. Quite remarkable and emotional.

There are many gestures of platonic love and priceless self-abnegation, illustrated with moving extracts from songs sung by Peter Pears, accompanied by the actual printed scores. He presents revealing personal letters written to Johnson by both Britten and Pears in most beautiful handwriting. His phrasing, educated voice, modulations, use of silence and dramatic creativity couched in the most poetic of language is emotionally one of the finest tributes to an artist I have ever heard. A model surely of its kind and a triumph of humanity in our benighted times.

He pays a personal tribute to Benjamin Britten on what would have been his 110th birthday, offering a fascinating overview of the composer's life and work. Johnson, who arrived from Africa in London in 1967 as a student of piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, barely knew Britten's work at the time. All that changed over many decades; he offers grateful and loving memories of a composer he got to study and later know personally. Johnson has performed, written about, and lived with Britten's music ever since. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is 100 minutes of erudite reaction to Britten' s magnificent body of work.

[Care of the Wigmore Hall]

Musicians in Poland are moved to performance of operas and other works by Britten with a passionate commitment to more contemporary classical music, embraced with great enthusiasm. This is clear in the dominant role played by the compositions of Witold Lutosławski, Andrzej Panufnik, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki among others.

Below are a selection of memorable Britten performances I reviewed in Warsaw and elsewhere.

You may need to scroll down in some to find the Britten review as they were often part of a more extended festival.

65th Duszniki-Zdroj International Chopin Piano Festival 6-14 August 2010

A beautiful account of the rarely heard Benjamin Britten Nocturne was given by  Denis Kozhukhin at Duszniki Zdrój.

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9th CHOPIN AND HIS EUROPE FESTIVAL (Chopin i jego Europa) from Chopin to Lutosławski 15th August - 1st September 2013

Piano Concerto, Op. 13 (1938)  

Benjamin Grosvenor was the delightful soloist in this rarely performed work

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The Rape of Lucretia - Benjamin Britten - ST. PETERSBURG CHAMBER OPERA in conjunction with the Warsaw Chamber Opera (Warszawska Opera Kameralna) - 17 December 2017 - Warsaw

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14th Chopin and his Europe (Chopin i jego Europa) International Music Festival Warsaw 9-31 August 2018

Piano Concerto, Op. 13 (1938)  

Leif Ove Andsnes as a magnificent soloist in this rarely performed work

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“Beethoven and the Songs of Romanticism” Beethoven Easter Festival, Warsaw 7-19 April 2019

War Requiem Op.66

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18th Chopin and His Europe Festival (Chopin i jego Europa) 14-31 August 2022, Warsaw, Poland

Double concerto for violin and viola (1932)


Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in a charming picture with happy children in a Rolls-Royce motor car. One is reminded of the composer's feeling for music and children in the delightful Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra Op.34 (1935)


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