Former music critic, presenter and friend of Benjamin Britten John Amis spoke to members of the Orpington Recorded Music Society on Monday 22 April 2013, sharing his recollections about the composer and playing some select recordings of works written by and conducted by him too.
At 90 years of age, Amis still commands attention. His towering presence is matched by a quick wit, measured self-deprecation and an enviable confidence when paying close attention to sartorial detail. Never before have I seen anyone carry off bright green, pastel pink and a brown check so assuredly. This combined with the very real sense that Amis remains one of only a handful of people alive who retains a palpable connection with Britten, made him an enthralling prospect.
Many of the anecdotes he shared during the evening were familiar; many appear in Carpenter’s biography about Britten. That said, it didn’t harm being reminded of some of them, especially as it helped illustrate what Amis’ view was on the Britten bubble throughout the man’s life.
First, an explanation of how Amis came to meet at Boosey & Hawkes, soon being asked to page turn at a special concert the composer had mounted at Wormwood Scrubs in 1947 where another composer, Michael Tippett, had been imprisoned for being a conscientious objector. Tippet and Amis shared page-turning duties during the concert. So the friendship between the two composers blossomed.
Historically, I’d always seen Amis as part of Britten’s ‘inner circle’ but Amis was quick to clarify early on: he considered himself ‘less of an intimate friend, more than an acquaintance’. This was borne out in his various anecdotes involving his ex-wife Olive Zorian as first violin in the Zorian String Quartet (‘Ben and me had to sit on the floor in me and my wife’s flat following the score of his second string quartet in rehearsals because me and my wife only had four chairs and the quartet had to use them) and leader of the English Opera Group (‘Olive was the only person who didn’t know she’d been dismissed from her job at the English Opera job’ – she found out two weeks later). These and a few recollections from the tail-end of Britten’s post-operation life, put Amis squarely in the ‘observers’ bracket.
In other ways, Amis didn’t beat around the bush, referring early on in the evening to Pears and Britten as ‘boyfriends’ (Amis is the first of his generation I’ve witnessed in most of my adult life use the term so comfortably in front of a room full of elderly people). From that point on though, Amis inadvertently illustrate how his contemporaries would have referred to the composer’s homosexuality, relationships or sexual proclivities. Intimacy wasn’t shied away from, although talk of sex was frame in quaint sometimes childish terms (“the boys Britten liked were always clear in stating that yes they shared a bed with Ben, but there was never any ‘hanky panky'”).
What Amis succeeded in doing effortlessly (this presumably down to his considerable radio and writing experience) was annotating Britten’s music and music-making. Amis spoke warmly about the composer’s output, describing it has having a charm and freshness which listening to the extracts selected for the evening (included below) was difficult to deny. Amis also threw light on Britten’s nerves as a pianist and a conductor, before introducing a breathtaking interpretation of Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem the latter of which can only be described as being taken at breakneck speed, disappointingly so.
This was a great primer of some of Britten’s best known and less well-known works. Ballad of Heroes was a particular surprise, so too the similarities between the early Piano Concerto (a personal favourite) and the Diversions for Left Hand. If you’re familiar with Hymn to St Cecilia then be prepared to experience heaven on earth. Balulalow from Ceremony of Carols maintains its exquisite status.
A Boy Was Born
Ballad of Heroes
Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra
Sinfonia da Requiem
String Quartet No.2
Hymn to St Cecilia
Rex Tremendae and Lachrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem (conducted by Britten)
John Amis made reference to Britten’s Mozart G Minor symphonies 25 and 40 with the English Chamber Orchestra describing them as ‘tragic’ but ‘lacking the necessary humour Mozart’s music needs’