Many consider Benjamin Britten the most important British composer since World War II; indeed, some think him the most important since Henry Purcell. Although often thought an uneven composer, most writers in the area concede that his operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice are among the greatest works in twentieth-century British music.
The history of Death in Venice is a history of ideas. Commentator Christopher Palmer, in his essay accompanying this recording, links the opera to Wagner (particularly Tristan und Isolde), Nietzsche, the German Romantic poet Platen, and other substantial precedents. What is central to Britten’s Death in Venice, and I think in this he is true to Mann’s story, is the idea that desire is a realm unto itself, with its own rules, its own motivations, and its own punishments.
Britten began work on Death in Venice, a project he had been thinking about for some time, in 1970, when he commissioned Myfanwy Piper to create the libretto. Britten himself, in declining health, was facing his own mortality, with all the implications that might have for the work.
The story is a simple one: Gustav von Aschenbach, a German vacationing in Venice, meets the Polish youth Tadzio, who is vacationing with his family. Struck by the boy’s beauty, Aschenbach becomes a slave to his desire, an enthrallment which eventually causes his death, a death that, thematically, comes about because love “can find no release, fulfillment, or expression on earth.” As one might suppose, there is nothing light-hearted about this opera. There is, from the very beginning, a kind of inevitability to the progression of events, somewhat on the order of Sophoclean tragedy. The only thing that comes close to redemption is Aschenbach, and he is not so much redeemed as transformed, much like Tristan, or, indeed, any of Wagner’s other heroes.
Nor is the music light in any way. Death in Venice is complex, although one could hardly call it “Wagnerian” – the forces employed are quite lean: two each of the woodwinds, two horns, trumpets and trombones, a tuba, timpani, harp and piano, and a small string section. The percussion is extensive, with five musicians playing a broad range of tuned and untuned percussion instruments. What makes this of interest is, first, that the percussion represents Tadzio, who neither sings nor speaks – in production, he and his family are dancers. In traditional opera terms this is unthinkable, yet as part of the dramatic necessity of this work, inevitable. Second, Britten was fascinated by the music of Bali, as were so many modern composers, and actually created his own gamelan for this work, bringing a certain exotic strain to the music that is perhaps a suitable twentieth-century equivalent to the almost Baroque richness of sound in Wagner.
There is a lot in Death In Venice, both Mann’s story and Britten’s opera, that a post-Stonewall gay man rejects out of hand – for example the surface idea that homosexuality=death, which is so beloved by the rabid right in this country. That the central theme, while somewhat deeper than that, is based largely in a nineteenth-century mystical idea of the erotic as an end in itself – or, in the words of Platen, “he who experiences essential beauty no longer belongs to life” – is something that we might find almost quaint in this age of sexual saturation. There is, however, validity to the distinctions implied in this view: sex is not love, beauty is not desirability, and love itself is only a shadow of something greater. Although there is a spiritual component to sexuality, it is something we need to be reminded of in the face of co-optation, and almost inevitably trivialization, of our basic drives as a means to an end. As a modern-day conundrum, it is perhaps gay men, in spite of being marginalized because of their overt differences from what is considered “male,” who are in the best position to illustrate that fact.
This recording was made under the supervision of the composer the year after the opera’s premier in 1973 at the Aldeburgh Festival. The roles of Aschenbach and a group that can loosely be called “The Fates” – the Traveller, the Elderly Fop, the Old Gondolier, the Voice of Dionysus, and others – were written for Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk, respectively, who perform them on these discs. One can hardly ask for a more authoritative rendering.
Britten’s Death in Venice, like any work of art, only grows richer as its context is understood. It is a compelling and often troubling work, and one of the high points in twentieth century music, somehow translating what might be dismissed as a nineteenth-century world view into unequivocally modern terms. Go for it.
(Decca Records, 1974 [vinyl]; London Records, 1990 [CD])