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Ruthie Culver and her combo UtterJazz play the Battle Festival.

Look, Stranger, what do you hear?

A highlight of the Battle Arts and Music Festival this October will be a ‘vibrant new look’ at the music of Benjamin Britten – jazz arrangements that weave swing, samba, blues and grooves through the ‘stunning melodies and harmonies’ and point to the the very formative period  of Britten’s life when he, as a 22 year-old in the 1930s, meets the older man, W H Auden,  and there follows a most productive collaboration and a sexual awakening, writes Chris Cormack.

Look Stranger - UtterJazz.

Not only did Britten write a whole bundle of music to words by W H Auden in the period 1935 to 1942, but the whole relationship  between the two artistic giants of the 20th century is key to Britten’s artistic and sexual being, such that Alan Bennett chose to write a play about it called The Habit of Art, speculating on the nature of the relationship. They were often songs for female singers and piano, and in hindsight, knowing about the two artists’ gay affiliation, the words are surprisingly explicit.

The songs often show contemporary jazz influences – Cole Porter, Gershwin and Weill – and it is easy to see how the music could accommodate trumpet, sax, double bass and drums added to piano in a new jazz arrangement of one of Britten’s cabaret songs such as Tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house; It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead, And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang, Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run, Or underneath the bed.

Britten and Auden first met in 1935, when Britten was 22 and had won his earliest commissions to write scores for the GPO film unit, including the famous Night Mail (1936)  which was to become an icon of 1930s style and modernism.

It must have been an exciting time in Britten’s early career and he was overawed by Auden’s ‘startling personality’ and ‘remarkably fine brain’; he said he felt very young and stupid sitting silently while Auden held forth. It is unlikely that the two ever had a physical relationship, but not for want of trying on Auden’s part. Some of Auden’s poems were dedicated to Britten and evidenced the pressure to wake up to his sexual leanings. Underneath the abject willow is one such poem which is also featured by UtterJazz:

Underneath an abject willow, lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow – what is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station proves you cold;
Stand up and fold your map of desolation.

UtterJazz featuring Ruthie Culver, Jonny Gee, Mick Foster, Dan Hewson and Andrea Trillo.

Britten was said to be more comfortable in the company of Christopher Isherwood, another in the clique,  but he was soon to meet Peter Pears, with whom he formed a life-long genteel, monogamous relationship; this may have been regarded by Auden as somewhat bourgeois. Whatever the case, in 1942 a rift came between Britten and Auden and tellingly they were never to collaborate or even meet again. It came out after Britten’s death that his health had been compromised early on by inadequately treated syphilis and this was material to his demise. Tell me the truth about love is the title of a film in the making about Britten’s life and relationships in the 1930s and 40s which may throw more light (or not!) on the situation.

Look, Stranger has toured many parts of England since 2013, including several festivals, to a rapturous audience reception and critical acclaim, including from BBC Radio 3 – “fantastic…very beautiful” –  and the Times – “an incredible night”. It is the brainchild of Ruthie Culver and fuses classical chamber ensemble with jazz improvisation and cabaret-style storytelling. The programme includes 12 songs from Britten’s

  • On This Island
  • Fish in the Unruffled Lakes
  • Cabaret Songs

interspersed with readings of Auden’s poetry from the 1930s.

Auden’s passionate, personal and political lyrics include Stop All the Clocks – featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral and additional Auden poems read by special guest Anton Lesser. The Memorial Halls in Battle are not that large and I foresee this show being a sell-out, so get your tickets early!

Look, Stranger featuring Ruthie Culver & the UtterJazz Quartet. Sunday 26 October at 4pm, Battle Memorial Halls, 81 High Street, Battle, East Sussex TN33 0AQ. Tickets box office  01797 229 049.

Festival calendar – other events

Posted 12:56 Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014 In: Music & Sound

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