In 1939, Benjamin Britten found himself in a productive yet unsettled period. He and his partner, Peter Pears, set off for North America from their native England with the intention of making a permanent move to the continent.
Pears and Britten’s itinerary took them to Toronto for a performance of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, and later for a holiday to the Quebec Laurentians, where biting insects took some of the shine off their stay.
While in the Laurentians, Britten heard some Quebecois folk tunes that inspired him to compose his Canadian Carnival Overture (Kermesse canadienne), Op. 19.
A personal confession: Apart from “Alouette,” I don’t recognize the tunes in Canadian Carnival Overture. Is there someone in the astute CBC Music blog community who does? I’d welcome finding out which other Quebecois tunes I missed!
By contrast, An American Overture, written at about the same time, was not based on folk themes, but showed off an American sound reminiscent of composers like Aaron Copland. This overture languished for decades, until its premiere by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1983.
I do prefer the Canadian Carnival Overture for its variety of moods and subtle shadings. Britten left North America in 1942, and neither overture he produced on the continent is among his very best, but both add detail to the complete picture of one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.
Are pieces such as An American Overture better left unplayed, or do they provide needed variety on symphony programs that rely heavily on proven favourites? Have your say in our comments section, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
on Mar 01, 2012