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Handel Society Spring Concert features Britten, Beethoven

Dartmouth’s Handel Society will present major works by Benjamin Britten and Ludwig van Beethoven at its spring concert in two performances in Spaulding Auditorium on Saturday, May 20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 21 at 2 p.m. The Society commemorates the 30th anniversary of Britten’s death with the New Hampshire premiere of his full-scale cantata The Company of Heaven, commissioned in 1937 by the BBC in celebration of Michaelmas Day.

Handel Society
Photo courtesy of the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts

Britten was a transformative figure in 20th-century English music, known for his striking orchestrations, lyrical text settings, and broad-ranging compositional output. From symphonic pieces and operas to song cycles and works for solo instruments, Britten is considered to be one of Britain’s greatest composers. Born in 1913, he began composing at the age of five and graduated from the Royal College of Music at the age of 16. The Company of Heaven is one of Britten’s lesser-known pieces, possibly because, after its performance for the BBC, it was put aside at the beginning of World War II and only published 50 years later. Another possible explanation for its absence from the performing repertoire, according to Steven Ledbetter, was that Britten considered it “incidental music” and not as important as his song cycles, orchestral works, and operas. Ledbetter, a former director of the Handel Society, was a visiting professor of music at Dartmouth and program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Opus 86, was commissioned in 1807 by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. The composer was already beginning to revolutionize the music of his day. The Mass in C major belongs to his so-called “middle period,” and consequently does not display some of the more remarkable characteristics of his later, more demanding, works. Yet it was sufficiently different from the settings of the mass by his contemporary composers and those who preceded him to cause the Prince to ask, “My dear Beethoven, what have you done this time?” Insulted by what he took to be criticism of the piece, Beethoven left Germany and returned to Vienna, dedicating the published version to Prince Ferdinand Kinsky instead of its patron, Esterházy.

By LAUREL STAVIS

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Last Updated: 12/17/08