Monday, 4 June 2012

The Moonrise Kingdom of Benjamin Britten

Wes Anderson's delightful new film Moonrise Kingdom is a coming-of-age yarn set in 1965 New England. In an idiosyncratic film, one of the characteristics fighting for attention is the use of music associated with youthful reverie and narrative and principally the use of music by the British composer Benjamin Britten.

The film opens and closes with the Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra, a set of variations (on a theme by another British composer, Henry Purcell, who lived and worked at about the time that New England was first colonised towards the end of the 17th century).

Variations are an apt form for a coming-of-age or rite-of-passage film as the form usually dictates a return to the opening theme at the end - just as Anderson returns to the house interior of the opening shot at its close - but with the variations on that theme still resonating and suggesting that nothing can be the same again. This piece in particular has a strong connection with the central conflict of Anderson's film, that of confrontation with authority and the perils of patronising the young: for a long time after its composition it would be referred to by its alternative title Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell as broadcasters and performers struggled with the contradictions of a virtuoso orchestral work aimed squarely at engaging a 'young person'.

Two more pieces used in the film which Britten wrote as a young man - and which radiate that youthfulness - are the Simple Symphony and the choral suite Friday Afternoons:

Both pieces were written as functional music for amateurs or children to perform. Britten composed both in the mid 1930s prior to leaving for America (in 1939) as a conscientious objector to the War. Clearly this is music that has no freight to it, music intended to be enjoyed on its own or as an exercise in collaborative music-making. Even the Young Person's Guide of 1946 only carries with it the (entirely reasonable) internal fire of freshly-minted national pride at the end of the war and many would argue that the triumph of the final return of the theme has no national resonsance beyond its provenance, and that any triumph is simply the nobility of the theme rising from the chaos of the preceding fugue.

This changes with the two operatic works - i.e. music that is intended to support points of narrative - that Wes Anderson chooses to use in the film, a chorus from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) and, explicitly, Noye's Fludde (or Noah's Flood, 1958).

Wes Anderson has cited his involvement in a performance of Noye's Fludde as making a particular impression. For me the moonlit dream-kingdom (all these symbols referred to in the title) is most immediately conjured by the chorus of child-fairies in his later opera after Shakespeare (above), music that is as evocative of the experience of creating a narrative for a child as that of the journey of Sam and Suzy, their reading of books and all the children's involvement in the staged narrative of  Noye's Fludde, itself, of course, a direct impression of the simultaneously occuring storm that rages across the island, causing an actual flood.

There's one other element which may be worth mentioning if not necessarily investigating. Britten's involvement with children is clearly profound and professional. It was also personal and complicated, if not outright dubious. The chaste but nonetheless explicit first blossoming of love between the children which finds its reflection in the dysfunction and flowering of the adults' relationships is also woven into the music.

This is not to suggest that we are hearing the aural equivalent of voyeurism. Certainly David Hemmings, best known for his work in cinema but who was a solo boy treble in the first performances of Britten's operatic treatment of Henry James' The Turn Of The Screw, written in 1954 just prior to the two pieces here discussed, always denied that his close relationship was ever improper. Rather that the impulse to physical love and its management are not hermetically sealed in a separate part of life, adulthood. It is clear that Anderson's understanding of growing up takes in everything and this is undoubtedly part of what the director means when he says that '[the music] is the colour of the movie, in a way'.

If you have yet to see the film, I recommend that you stay during the credits, during which the final fugue of Britten's Young Person's Guide, not heard during the film proper, is performed (not to mention additional music cue composer Alexander Desplat's own homage to it).


  1. Excellent article. I just finished reading a relatively long (but good) article on some of the same ideas: here.

  2. Thanks for leaving a comment and for the link, particularly that which clicks through to Russell Platt's piece for the New Yorker.