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Pacifist sympathies in little-known Britten work

Benjamin Britten (in 1954) wrote “Russian Funeral,” his only piece for brass band, for a 1936 concert.

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Benjamin Britten (in 1954) wrote “Russian Funeral,” his only piece for brass band, for a 1936 concert.

Sunday , at Arlington’s Regent Theater, Bay Colony Brass and conductor Channing Yu present a program that includes a true rarity: Benjamin Britten’s “Russian Funeral,” the composer’s only piece for brass band. It was written by the 22-year-old Britten for a March 1936 concert by the London Labour Choral Union, whose conductor, Alan Bush, was an outspoken Marxist. Britten shared the bill with what would become a particularly infamous piece: “Die Massnahme,” a “teaching-play” by writer Bertolt Brecht and composer Hanns Eisler, about a cadre of agitators who kill an indiscreet comrade rather than compromise their mission. (After World War II, the piece became prominent evidence in the Red Scare pursuit of Brecht and Eisler; the text of the play was copied — multiple times — into both men’s FBI files.)

The occasion was indicative of Britten’s political leanings, but in “Russian Funeral” itself, Britten characteristically sidestepped Brecht and Eisler’s doctrinaire art in favor of more universal themes. The Russianness in “Russian Funeral” is explicitly revolutionary, but hardly triumphant: Britten quoted one of the most famous of Russian funeral marches, “Vy zhertvoiu pali” (“You fell as victims”), written in 1878, but better known as a memorial to victims of Bloody Sunday, the January 1905 massacre that triggered uprisings across the Russian Empire.

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Britten, then and throughout his life, advocated for pacifism more than any specific leftist program. His original title for the piece — “War and Death” — indicates his ultimate sympathies. He would write two more funeral-march movements in the 1930s, both making reference to the Spanish Civil War: the “Lament” (subtitled “Barcelona, July 1936”) from “Mont Juic,” a collaborative piece written with Lennox Berkeley, and the opening movement of his large-scale cantata “Ballad for Heroes.” In all three, the implicit focus is the horror and human cost of war.

“Russian Funeral” shows the influence on the young Britten of Dmitri Shostakovich, then an enfant terrible of Soviet music, later a sometimes reluctant elder statesman in and out of favor with the regime. Britten and Shostakovich finally met in 1960, becoming fast friends. Not long before, Shostakovich had written his own interpretation of the 1905 revolution: his Symphony No. 11, which also quotes “Vy zhertvoiu pali.” Whether out of deference to Shostakovich’s use of the material or unease with his own earlier politics, Britten withdrew “Russian Funeral” from circulation soon after; it remained unpublished until after Britten’s death.

Matthew Guerrieri

Bay Colony Brass presents “Left/Right/Turn” Sunday at
2 p.m. at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford St., Arlington (tickets $10-$15; www.regent
theatre.com).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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