By · Illustrations · Date 09/29/2016

When you think of small towns in rural England, you envision medieval stone buildings, carefully manicured gardens, and tearooms with Thomas Hardy-esque quietude, serenity, even sleepiness. That is, until you hear the bells. In every church. Ringing every hour, on the hour. Every Sunday morning, I remember incessant calls to worship at the cathedral next to my dormitory. 200 feet from my bedroom, the octogenarian campanologists of the city of Ely rehearsed matrices and permutations ad nauseam with bells that weighed three times as much as me, loud enough to wake the dead.

They’re so loud, it’s easy to forget that they’re actually musical instruments. Over and over in orchestral music, bells are not so much instruments in their own right as merely tools for special effects: a knell of destiny or a joyous punctuation. Distance, grandeur, nostalgia, dread, mourning—there are a huge number of images evoked by bells, and yet when we hear them we recognize not only their significance, but what they signify. The witches’ sabbath in Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”? It’s 3 a.m. and time for an orgy around the fire, guys. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? There is little doubt that you’ve arrived at Kiev’s Mighty Gates.

Benjamin Britten stands apart from his composer colleagues in his own use of bells. He never actually used them in his larger works, but imitated them time and time again not to evoke images of prescience or magnanimity, but precisely the opposite. Bells for Britten were part of everyday life, much as they are in Albion’s villages and hamlets. They evoke the bustle of a town like Aldeburgh on a Sunday morning, in “Peter Grimes,” or the rush hour traffic outside Westminster Cathedral, in his “Missa Brevis.”

In his “War Requiem,” Britten sets the words of Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” It’s a dark commentary on our own antipathy to the sounds of bells and the manner in which they are both everyday and not: reminders of time, a sonification of human mortality, and yet so repetitive we ignore them. “What passing bells for these who die as cattle / —Only the monstrous anger of the guns,” Owen wrote.

Britten’s dedication to pacifism was strong enough not only to inspire politically significant works such the “War Requiem” in his late career, but to make him leave England for America in the wake of the World War II. Sadly, his return to England did not come at the war’s end, but at its height in 1942, only months after the United States declared war. It was on this journey homewards that Britten composed one of his more frequently performed works, “A Ceremony of Carols” for treble voices and harp. Plainsong hymns, medieval poetry, the use of an instrument evocative of minstrels and troubadours, one gets the sense of returning to a romantic past, or a more stultified and wondrous understanding of the Christmas story.   

The work remains very close to the hearts of harpists around the world, myself included. While not virtuosic in the classical sense, there’s a reimagining of the sonic capabilities of the harp unlike the core of the 19th-century repertoire by Pierné, Fauré, or Ravel. The textures are sparse, dry and cutting, exposing the harp’s edges and peripheries, not so much its depth and resonance. The very opening movement never uses the bottom half of the harp, but mirrors the texture and timbre of the voices.

Similarly, most of the last movement requires the harpist to play as close to the sounding board as possible, imitating the nasal sound of a lute or guitar, or maybe the grinding sound of another instrument.

But the movement that we harpists latch onto the most is the Interlude, a curious meditation for solo harp sandwiched between two drastically differing movements. Before it comes “This Little Babe,” a Robert Southwell poem describing the manner in which the infant Jesus’s frailty, his tears and cries, his dependency on his mother are the ultimate defenses needed against the “powers of hell.”

Just as the Interlude ends, the listener bears witness to what this might mean in reality. “Behold a silly, tender babe, in Freezing Winter night, / In homely manger trembling lies, alas, a piteous sight!” writes Southwell. It’s all trills, buzzing and bisbigliandi accompanying this irregular movement—in quintuple time—a sickly, unstable lullaby.

Britten expresses the boisterous ease of which humans purport to reject belligerence, violence and war, and seemingly reminds the listener of the stakes of genuine pacifism: the outward appearance of infantilism and naïveté. As his friend W.H. Auden wrote in 1942, “O dear white children casual as birds, / Playing among the ruined languages, / So small beside their large confusing words.” Pacifism is so easily dismissed as a lack of adult understanding, when in reality it is a serious moral choice, with very real consequences.

In early 1942, as he was composing both the “Ceremony of Carols” and “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” Britten returned to England to face not only his own country at war, but also tribunal for his self-declaration of pacifism. Barred from simply registering as a conscientious objector, Britten was singled out as a public figure to come before a hearing and account for his political beliefs. Such a show trial was clearly fruitless. Britten had spent decades writing music for pacifist causes since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, from a “Pacifist March” written in 1937 for the Peace Pledge Union, to music for Paul Rotha’s pacifist film “Peace of Britten” (1936). It’s hard to imagine that such a hearing would have shifted Britten’s position or truly prompted the authorities to suddenly take action after so many years of silence.

But the stakes had risen in England. While taking a moral stance on German and Spanish aggression in the 1930s was acceptable from a distance, the possibility of both moral objection and non-engagement increasingly waned during World War II. This was certainly on Britten’s mind as he prepared for his trial in mid-1942, in which he confessed, “I realize that in total war, it is impossible to avoid all participation of an indirect kind but I believe I must draw the line as far away from direction participation as possible.”

Being forced to take a proactive stance on what pacifism was, Britten scaled a personal peak. His friend W.H. Auden warned him, “If you really are to develop your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer, and make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have; i.e. you will have to be able to say what you never yet have had the right to say—God, I’m a shit.”         

Britten made an affirmative choice to return to England. His former tutor Frank Bridge and friends such as Christopher Isherwood made happy homes in America, but ironically Britten’s pacifistic conscience led him home to take a stance on a defining moral issue of his life.  

Musicians love to talk about tension in Britten’s music, the problems of decision and the struggle of conscience. New York-based harpist Ashley Jackson, herself a very politically engaged musician and academic who works with Sing Her Name, told me that “the technical challenges and subversion of traditional harmony are what make Britten’s music so immediately accessible to audiences.”

Two conflicting ideas are at play in the harp solo in the middle of the “Ceremony of Carols,” as if there’s a choice at hand. We’ve just heard the choir tell us that “if thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy.” Joyous as it sounds, the truly conditional “if” plays out in the Interlude. The harpist’s two hands inhabit two completely different sound worlds; the left hand is played almost entirely in harmonics, while the right hand plays chords. The left hand tolls a repetitive strain, a melodic fragment of the Dies Irae, while right hand harmonizes the plainsong “Hodie, Christus natus est.” The time signature is that of a pastorale, and yet the pastoral image is upended by an incongruous relationship between the hands, with no discernible cadences. The key is C-flat major, the most comfortable for harpists, requiring no pedal mechanisms to be engaged, making the instrument sound “natural.” But the harp’s natural key sits exactly a tritone apart from the traditional pastoral key of F Major—the furthest it could possibly be. The only constancy in the movement is the left hand ostinato—tolling, ringing, ever present as the moral decisions humans make in their lives every day.

Harpists face crucial choices in interpreting the work, as it’s not clear which hand should be more prominent. Do the left hand harmonics require more tone, more sound, more direction? Or is the binding theme of the right hand taken from the first movement more important?

For an idea so pervasive in Britten’s works, pacifism feels like a bygone ideal, naïve or useless as it takes no active stance. Juilliard Professor Benjamin Sosland (who himself teaches a course on Britten) told me that Britten’s music remains the pinnacle of musical expression of anti-belligerence. “We have 20th-century composers and public figures such as John Adams and Leonard Bernstein, but their positions on politics are far more focused and polemical. I can’t think of any musicians whose entire moral framework remains so eternally politically relevant. War is always among us, and yet it is taken for granted. Such was not the case for Britten.”

Though there are other pacifist composers of note, including Michael Tippett and Ned Rorem, Sosland makes an important point that our contemporary framework for understanding politics doesn’t really make room for pacifism anymore, but only the notions of military engagement and non-engagement; there’s no longer a strong moral force that takes the violence and destruction of war off the table entirely.

Britten faced a choice in 1942: he was no longer permitted to leave the matter of engagement at the door. And yet, Britten did not fight but heeded his conscience. His pacifism did not change, but the platform upon which it stood certainly did. Themes of the loss of innocence, solitude, and isolation took on new meaning—an ironic imperative for him to stick to his guns about his truth: war is never—never—the answer.

Today, classical musicians and composers are great at taking positive stances on important issues, be it LGBT rights, national self-determination, or gender equality. But what of the oldest recurring problem that has remained with humanity: violent conflict? As Maestro Gergiev brings takes musicians on tour to promote a national militaristic culture, have we gone backwards? Juilliard’s President, Joseph W. Polisi, recently told the New York Times that unlike sports or other forms of collective cultural experiences, “the arts operate in a different sphere by communicating profound intellectual and emotional truths.” The emotional truth of the traumas of war is all too apparent, and music can certainly help us to mediate them, but what of the intellectual, the political, the eternal? Where are our musical pacifists now when we need them most?

I keep coming back to the Interlude, and the choice that Britten sets before us. The right hand may present a passive ideal, but the left hand’s theme is judgment and decision. For me, I stick with the bells. The very reminder of choice remains constant in the work, as the right hand fades into nothingness. What could be better than taking that which is around you, which we all witness and think about, and doing something about it? ¶