Benjamin Britten and his temporal variations for oboe
Benjamin Britten is one of the most prominent composers of the twentieth century, not only in the UK, but throughout the world. His work covers a large number of genres, from small chamber works to ballets and operas. And all of them are very popular in our time.
Britten worked to revive English opera, as well as secure the future of British musical drama. Throughout his life, he worked hard and tried to write music in such a way that it was accessible and understandable to almost any listener. He rejected most of the “modernist” musical ideologies, and due to the clarity of the works, his music made it possible to arouse interest among schoolchildren, which contributed to an increase in national musical consciousness and musical literacy.
Britten was famous for most of his life, his works were performed on the most famous stages and the most famous virtuosos. Britten wrote four plays for oboe, each of which is now a standard part of the repertoire of oboes in the 20th and 21st centuries.
In all these works, Britten uses his characteristic harmonic techniques and turns, with the help of which he introduced into the tonal music a certain slight ambiguity and / or dissonance. In addition, all oboe works have a high level of detail, which is a hallmark of his work.
Temporal variations are dedicated to Montagu Slater (1902–1956), a pacifist, poet, playwright, and literary critic. Britten met him while studying at college, where he was the leader of a group of students who expressed their protest against the war. Slater was one of the main figures in the “left wing” of British art of the 30s. Britten is the author of music for his two dramatic plays (1935-1936), and Slater, in turn, was the librettist of the opera Peter Grimes, which, a decade after creating the variations, heralded the revival of English opera in the twentieth century.
Temporal variations can literally be translated as “secular variations,” but this option does not fully correspond to reality, since there are variations with names such as Commination and Chorale that correspond to certain parts of the church service. In this case, Temporal variations must be translated using the Latin word tempos – time. This title of the work is a “pun”, that is, on the one hand, secular – as the life of a person, society, and on the other – temporary – as a work for a time period, for an era and its transformation.
Variations were written for oboe and piano in 1936. The work was completed on December 12, 1936, and the premiere took place on December 15 at Wigmore Hall in London. The performers were Natalie Kane and Adolf Hallis. Britten’s diary entry on that day indicates that he was pleased with the work done. However, the variations were no longer performed until 1980, when they were published.
In temporal variations, you can see the style features that were formed during Britten’s work with the Main Post Office: film music requires more brilliance and more effects than music that does not accompany the video sequence. This was manifested in many works of the composer, including the variation “Choral”. In it, the composer used the oboe to create such an effect when, after the chord sequence of the piano, the oboe sounds like a continuation of the chord aftertone in order to create a spatially indifferent sense of hovering in this part. In addition, in the variation of Polka, Britten wrote rather unattractively for the oboe, putting his special meaning in semitones, but with less elegance than in the works written earlier – presumably in an attempt to create another effect, and not to emphasize the beauty of the melody and timbre.
Temporal variations were written at the end of 1936, which was very significant for Britten, because earlier, in the same year, Britten wrote a large-scale symphonic cycle for the voice and orchestra “Our Ancestors Are Hunters”. In working on this cycle, Britten collaborated with his colleague Auden. Britten was very pleased with the work done and believed that this was his first serious work. This is evidenced by his diary, which he kept from 1928 to 1938.
“Our ancestors are hunters,” a cycle about inhumanity in general, consists of the ideas that Auden and Britten adhered to in 1936. There are some technical parallels between temporal variations and this cycle. As in the variations, this cycle combines simple forms with more ambiguous harmonies. Another example is the fact that some parts of the cycle are based on just five sounds that combine major and minor keys in their relationship. Britten decided to use a typical symphonic structure to create a cycle to bring a degree of absolute…