At home (and work) with Catherine

A (shoe)box of MONYCs, currently residing deep in the Fens.

I have been working at home doing MONYCS [editor’s aside – MONYCs (Music Ordered Not Yet Catalogued), are one of our behind the scenes card catalogues, housed in an array of what look like shoe boxes. It looks as though it shouldn’t work, but in fact is a great system for keeping track of our uncatalogued items] and apart from the big high of having my first Covid jab a couple of weeks ago things have been much the same everyday.

Sometimes, out of curiosity I play the music titles on the MONYC cards and mostly it’s pleasing to my ear. Youtube has shown me the beauty of Benjamin Britten’s work and the …erm unusual work of John Cage.

These two composers stand out for me as their music is so different from each other.

Time Magazine cover, February 16th, 1948.
Illustrator: Ernest Hamlin Baker.

I’ve been especially interested in listening to Benjamin Britten’s Choral Dances from Gloriana and John Cage’s Bird cage composed in 1972.

Britten’s opera Gloriana is about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex and was composed as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. It was not appreciated by the critics, and was, for Britten, an unexpected failure.

There is an East Anglian element to the opera’s plot as Queen Elizabeth I is on a state visit to the city of Norwich, where she is entertained in Act II by a masque, which consists of the Choral Dances, six works for unaccompanied choir: Time, Concord, Time and concord, Country girls, Rustics and fishermen, and Final dance of homage. My favourite is the first, Time.

Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, England. He was a musical prodigy and began playing the piano at the age of two. His father was a dental surgeon and his mother was musical. Later he attended the Royal College of Music.

The poet W.H. Auden was a great influence on him. Auden revealed to Britten the beauty of poetry and an awareness of setting words to music. He also enforced Britten’s pacifist convictions. Britten was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, but tried to help the war effort without sacrificing his ideals.

A production of Gloriana from 2005. Opera Theater of St. Louis.

Britten established the English Opera Group, and produced a string of operas including Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, and The turn of the screw. Peter Grimes made him famous. Most, unlike Gloriana, were very successful.

In June 1976 Britten was made a life peer, the first composer to be so honoured, becoming Baron Britten. On the 4th of December that year, he died of heart failure.

Some people love John Cage’s Bird cage, but I can’t say it is to my taste – it’s just too way out for me. Rather than conventional instruments, Cage uses 12 pre-recorded tapes. You can hear the work here.

John Milton Cage Jr. was born on 5th September 1912 in Los Angeles. His father was an inventor and his mother occasionally worked as a journalist. He travelled around Europe for a while before returning to the States in 1931. In 1933 he decided to concentrate on his music.

He certainly created some unusual works. It’s almost as though he’s saying anything can be music. Wanting to experiment with sounds (I think it’s the inventor coming out of him!), he used unconventional instruments such as prepared pianos, putting objects between the strings to produce different sounds. He also used tape recorders and radios.

4′ 33″ is his most famous creation. The title refers to the length of the performance and is a silent piece. Composed in 1952 the performers do not play during the entire duration of the work.

It reminds me of something Yoko Ono did in the 1970s. She held an exhibition of her work in an art gallery. But there were no pictures on the walls. You had to “imagine” the pictures. I’m not sure how I feel about that!

[Editor’s aside – John Cage and Yoko Ono knew each other well. They were friends and worked together. There’s more information in this article by Madeline Bocaro. Catherine’s thoughts of a connection between the two works may indeed be correct.]

John Cage died on August 11 1992.

Both of these works are very different to the sort of music I normally listen to. Here’s a piece of music that I love – the introductory music to the TV series Kidnapped, first broadcast in 1978, and composed by Vladimir Cosma. Enjoy.

Catherine Taylor

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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