Saturday, January 30, 2016

Withdrawn Month - Benjamin Britten's Young Apollo, op. 16 (1939)

Opus numbers are tricky things - originally created by 17th century publishers to help differentiate works with similar titles and used inconsistently by composers to catalog their own works ever since.  The heyday of opus numbers was the 19th century, especially among Germanic and Russian composers, as its usage largely died out in the 20th century as part of a general shift away from the Old Ways.  The notable 20th century exceptions include Darius Milhaud, whose opus'd works number over 400, as well as the young American composer Carson Cooman who has more than 1130 opus'd works to his name in 20-odd years of composing (including works supposedly written this month!) because of his habit of assigning an opus number to every stray thought that floats through his head.  The main problem with assigning opus numbers is determining what "deserves" a number, as composers often end up leaving opus numbers off of occasional pieces, pieces they don't particularly like or other marginalia.  Occasionally, though, composers assign numbers to works and then withdraw them without reassigning the number to a new work, leaving a hole in their catalog to the dismay of musicologists.  Such is the case with Benjamin Britten and his piece Young Apollo, assigned an "op. 16" and then suppressed immediately after its premiere in 1939.  Britten left a number of works on the shelf without opus numbers, such as the Temporal Variations and Two Insect Pieces for oboe and the unfinished Sonatina Romantica for piano, but Young Apollo is the only work with an opus number to get the shaft, and after hearing it I really can't imagine why...well, maybe I can but it's still insufficient.

Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and scored for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, Young Apollo is sprightly, diabolical fun.  Starting with a several-octave drone and some of the most exciting scale-running I've heard in a while, things get of to a Lydiany start in the solo quartet and then bounce down a cobblestone road in search of a pot of gold.  This is Britten at his most stereotypically Neoclassical, ironically hanging onto simple riffs and overlapping major and minor chord permutations in an effort to create that brand of intellectually-intriguing unease Neoclassical composers of the time loved to dead-horse-beating levels.  It's also Britten at his most self-explanatory, an attribute he wasn't totally alien to but most notable here, a vast simplification from his Piano Concerto, op. 13 written the year before.  That isn't to say there isn't craftsmanship and atmosphere here, as there certainly is, it's just that there's little depth and variety on a nuts-and-bolts level.  It's an interesting case of what is clearly an Occasional Piece in every sense of the word lasting longer than its role would normally allow it - it's too repetitive to be a full overture but hardly a bagatelle.  Britten felt it wasn't doing him any favors regardless of however we wish to designate it and it remained unpublished until after his death, proving once again that if there's anything publishers are good at it's ignoring the wishes of their authors.  Luckily for us we can get works like this out of their disdain for the purest sense of Authority.  More on that in an upcoming penny dreadful...


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