Passing down the craft: Linda Mabbs Remembers Britten

This blog post is by Emily Schweich, a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major.

Linda Mabbs

Linda Mabbs photo by Mike Ciesielski

November 22 marks the centennial of one of the 20th century’s finest composers, Benjamin Britten. While most of his vocal work was written for his lifelong partner, the tenor Sir Peter Pears, Britten wrote a variety of songs for the female voice. School of Music Professor of Voice Linda Mabbs had the opportunity to work with Sir Peter Pears at the Aldeburgh Festival in the United Kingdom and to perform some of these songs for Britten himself shortly before he died. This Thursday, she will perform Britten’s songs for soprano at Linda Mabbs Remembers Britten, a recital to celebrate the legendary composer’s 100th birthday.

That is why our craft is so unique. It’s handed down one person to the next, and the same thing with Britten. His teacher was very influential upon him, and then Peter and Ben were influential on my interpretation and my teaching, and I’m passing that on to my students.

Emily Schweich: How did you first meet Benjamin Britten?

Professor Linda Mabbs: I met Britten the last year of his life, in 1976. I had met Peter Pears at the University of Chicago, and so I went over to Aldeburgh to study with him in their summer program while I was still a student. Sir Peter had suggested that maybe I should look at On This Island, which is a group of songs with text by W.H. Auden, and so I did. I coached them with him, and then I performed them for Mr. Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival.

ES: What was it like to work with Britten and Sir Peter Pears?

LM: I think it was life-changing. It’s always important for a young student to have a connection to the creator of a work. To have someone of Britten’s magnitude, it was just thrilling. He was rolled back in a wheelchair, and he was so nice, so lovely. I said how wonderful it was that he had written so many songs for Sir Peter, and he said, “Well yes, my dear, but the songs you sang, I wrote for Sophie Wyss!” So that was kind of exciting, to sing for him and to have that connection. He made a couple of suggestions while I was preparing it.

That’s one thing about our craft. It’s handed down person-to-person. You can’t really read about it. You can’t really learn about it online. And I could tell stories, but it’s that connection where you’ll have someone of Sir Pears’ international level say, “My dear, this is the way we always did it. Take a breath there but make this long line…” That is why our craft is so unique. It’s handed down one person to the next, and the same thing with Britten. His teacher was very influential upon him, and then Peter and Ben were influential on my interpretation and my teaching, and I’m passing that on to my students. That’s part of what this program will be about.

ES: Why did you decide to have this recital?

LM: First of all, I wanted to honor Mr. Britten. It is his 100th birthday. So I decided that I would do this two years ago. I also wanted to point out that most of the repertoire we’re doing in this recital Britten wrote before he turned 30. So these are young works that were written at the age that most of our graduate students are. I also wanted to talk about this idea of the craft being passed from one voice to the next, one person to the next…and also, to tell a few stories about him.

ES: What was the most interesting thing about Britten that other people might not know?

LM: He was very precise and he wanted to hear things exactly the way he wrote them, which is probably true of most composers. But he also had a sense of humor.

After my performance…my husband had just come back and said, “Linda, it was the best I’ve ever heard you sing. I understood every word. It was fantastic.”

Then Britten comes and says, “It was just absolutely lovely, my dear. But I couldn’t understand a bloody word!” And without thinking, you know, sometimes when you’re young, things just come out of your mouth. “Oh, well of course you didn’t, Mr. Britten, because I was singing it in American instead of in British!” And we all laughed. But it also taught me a very important lesson, that English is pronounced differently in different parts of the world, so you have to make the adjustment sometimes to be understood.

He’s a great composer; he’s difficult to understand sometimes. You start a piece of his and you’re not sure you’re going to like it, and by the time you’re done, it’s so profound and so amazing. There’s always something underneath. Some of his things are dark, and you don’t realize they’re dark until you start really working on them and you see the many layers of meaning there.

ES: How did your work at the Aldeburgh influence you as a musician?

LM: Going to Aldeburgh and meeting the creators of so many works and seeing how they collaborated colored my approach to teaching and performing. I now look at the lives of the people who wrote the songs…not just learning the parts, but I look and see what they were doing when they wrote them. It’s informed my performances ever since, and I think I try to pass that approach to my students as well, that you can’t just look at what’s on the paper, because what’s on the paper is simply a guide. When you make a sound, you have to, with your sound, reflect not only what is on the page but what is intended that the composer couldn’t put on the page.

Professor Mabbs’ CD, Benjamin Britten’s Songs for Ladies, will be released later this year. Linda Mabbs Remembers Britten will take place this Thursday, November 21, at 8PM in the Gildenhorn Recital Hall.