Professor Mervyn Cooke: Seminar Details and Video

Professor Mervyn Cooke, University of Nottingham

30 November 2011

Be flat or be natural? Pitch symbolism in Britten’s operas

Britten’s strong interest in tonal symbolism is revealed in his operas in two distinct but sometimes interrelated ways: keys are carefully organized within a single opera to reflect various aspects of the drama (while at the same time achieving an autonomous structural cogency), and – more intriguingly – certain specific tonal regions recur with striking frequency in more than one opera in the context of extra-musical ideas that are either identical or conceptually related. In conjunction with a fresh consideration of the composer’s interest in puns and word games, this talk proposes that the pitches Bb and B§ and their associated keys were of particular personal significance to Britten throughout his career. The notion is supported by a wide range of examples drawn from the operas Peter Grimes (1945), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953) and The Prodigal Son (1968) – a remarkable set of instances which collectively suggest that the semitonal tension between these two pitches graphically reflected Britten’s preoccupation with psychological conflicts occasioned by the sometimes irreconcilable demands of public responsibilities and private desires.

Mervyn Cooke is Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham. As a teenager he studied at the Royal Academy of Music, during which time his symphonic poem Messalina (written when he was fifteen) was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Concert Orchestra; he was subsequently awarded an Open Scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, where he remained to complete his doctorate on the music of Benjamin Britten. He was for six years Research Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before moving to Nottingham. His books include Britten and the Far East, several volumes of Britten’s correspondence, and monographs on Billy Budd and War Requiem; and he has edited three Cambridge Companions, devoted to Britten, Twentieth-Century Opera, and Jazz. He has also published two illustrated histories of jazz (Thames & Hudson).  His most recent books are A History of Film Music (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and The Hollywood Film Music Reader (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is currently co-editing the sixth and final volume of Britten’s letters, to be published to celebrate the composer’s centenary in 2013, and writing an analytical study of the ECM recordings of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny.


Last modified: Friday, 8 June 2012, 4:04 PM