Carrying the torch: ISU tenor, scholar honors legacy of Benjamin Britten through song and research
One of Great Britain’s best-known and most respected composers of classical music is the muse of one of Illinois State’s more prolific scholars. Justin Vickers, vocal artist and researcher of 20th-century British music history, specializes in the music and life of Benjamin Britten.
Britten was born in the county of Suffolk, England, in 1913 and died there in 1976. He was a composer, conductor, and pianist, who was known for his operas and song literature. He wrote for strings, choir, orchestra, and even for radio and theater, but most notably, central to his vocal compositions were works written for the tenor.
“Britten’s intent as a composer for the voice was ‘to try and restore to the musical setting of the English language a brilliance, freedom, and vitality,’” Vickers said, quoting Britten, “that he asserted had been ‘curiously rare since the death of (Henry) Purcell,’ the great Renaissance composer from the 17th century. With such a statement, Britten crafted a 400-year association in an instant: one he never sidestepped throughout his life.”
Vickers is an assistant professor of voice in the School of Music. He is an artist and a teacher of opera and song, equally in his element onstage or in the classroom.
As a classically trained tenor, Vickers has performed in opera, oratorio, musicals, and pops concerts around the world—in Beijing, Moscow, and Vienna—and closer to home in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1999 at age 25, and he has sung at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Lincoln Center in New York City. He has also appeared on television, radio, film, and several commercial recordings.
In addition to his scholarship on Britten, Vickers received the 2014 Nicholas Temperley Prize for Excellence in a Dissertation for his 2011 work on Britten-contemporary Michael Tippett. (Temperley is revered as the founder of British music studies in America.) In May Vickers will perform as part of the Concerts from the Library of Congress series in a lecture-recital titled “Johnnies, Tommies, and Sammies: Music and the WWI Alliance.”
Sitting in his office in Cook Hall, filled with CDs, books, framed musical scores, and a Steinway piano, Vickers appreciates all the aspects of his life in music. But he is clear on his mission at Illinois State.
“I’m here to teach the art and craft of singing,” he said.
Vickers grew up in Danville with music a part of his life as far back as he can remember. His mother played the flute, while his father preferred the Oak Ridge Boys, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. Voice and piano lessons began by the fifth grade at the quiet insistence of his maternal grandmother and her sister; the young Vickers pretended to be a Bugs Bunny-like opera singer by using a potato masher as a microphone and a Tupperware bowl as a helmet.
“I knew I was going to be a singer,” Vickers said.
Vickers received his bachelor’s degree in voice performance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later returned there for his dual doctoral studies in voice and musicology. His undergraduate voice professor, Ronald Hedlund, introduced him to Britten’s music for his senior recital, and the young tenor performed the composer’s orchestral song cycle Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.
“Britten’s music resonates with me as an artist on the most profound level,” Vickers said. “There’s something taking place within Britten’s music: It pulls at my heart. It pulls at my mind. It keeps me investigating.”
Vickers said there were a number of complex reasons that Britten’s work struck him. They both had rural upbringings, and Britten composed for a tenor, Peter Pears, his partner in music and life for 39 years.
“As a gay man, I am keenly connected to what I might assume I understand about Britten’s mindset. Having been raised in a heteronormative Midwestern town, and now proudly married, I feel a special bond with Britten and Pears,” Vickers said. “And while I do not necessarily assume a great sense of ‘knowing,’ such that I would deign to speak for Britten, I am especially comfortable speaking about him, his life and loves, and the rich tapestry he left behind in a fascinating body of musical works and the two arts organizations (the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts) in whose founding he was integral.”
Vickers has researched and published extensively on Britten. In 2013 he co-directed “Benjamin Britten at 100: An American Centenary Symposium,” an international conference and concert series held at Illinois State. He is currently working on three Britten-related books: Benjamin Britten Studies: Essay on an Inexplicit Art, a history of the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts coming out this year, and a volume focused on Britten’s canon of song repertoire. He has also been contracted to expand on his discovery of an excised Britten setting of John Donne in a chapter for musicologist Kate Kennedy’s forthcoming volume, Literary Britten.
His research routinely takes him to England where the most relevant archive for Britten material is housed. It’s there that Vickers can actually see and touch Britten’s work.
The Britten-Pears Foundation (BPF, formerly the Britten-Pears Library) is located on the grounds of Britten and Pears’ longtime home, The Red House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Opened in 1980, the BPF represents the world’s largest repository of holdings of a single composer. Britten and Pears’ aim was to ensure that their archival collection would survive for researchers and readers long after their deaths.
Now more than 40 years after Britten’s death, there are thousands of pages of autograph musical manuscripts, tens of thousands of pieces of correspondence, and countless internal memos, financial records, press clippings, and concert programs spanning the composer’s life. The sheer volume and range of documents in the BPF alone can be overwhelming, Vickers said.
“We’ve got to get to the primary sources,” Vickers said. “It’s not enough to read another scholar’s writing; it informs us, but it’s not the same as working from original documents.”
One of the payoffs in traveling directly to the archives is that while Vickers may arrive with one quest in mind, he is able to pursue other paths.
One such discovery for Vickers was a completed Britten manuscript that the composer cut from The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, an “Epilogue” that Vickers uncovered in the BPF, catalogued, but long forgotten. In 2015 Vickers published the findings of his discovery in The Musical Times, the world’s oldest music journal. Furthermore, Vickers sang the world premiere performance of Britten’s “Epilogue” in 2010, 65 years after its composition.
The research of social history, Vickers said, inspires him to see “the big picture, making a larger connection across the whole length of Britten’s life. You must always have a sense of what’s going on in England, and internationally, at the time of any consideration of a particular subject. Context is key.”
One of the high points for Vickers is analyzing Britten’s work on the page in the artist’s own hand. Vickers charts the creative process and sees instances where Britten self-edited and took a new direction with a composition.
“There are always those moments of awe as I peel back the layers of his compositions from sketches and various stages of drafts,” Vickers said. “I look at a completed score as an artifact that I can reverse engineer. It’s like musicological forensics.”
Vickers has been invited by the Britten-Pears Foundation to give a performance for its 2017 exhibition chronicling the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality. Before 1967, homosexuality—and therefore Britten’s relationship with Pears until that time—was a crime in England and Wales.
The guarded nature of Britten’s Aldeburgh, as numerous scholars and Vickers have asserted, was largely an effort to insulate the composer’s private life. “Britten courted relationships with the gentry, including Queen Elizabeth II,” Vickers said. “He was savvy about protecting himself. Nonetheless those efforts created an aura of secrecy. One that we still navigate and necessarily discuss to this day.”
The Britten-Pears Foundation has commissioned Vickers to write a special article for its 2017 exhibition publication to mark the anniversary from an American professor and singer’s perspective. Vickers has crafted a recital performance of vocal works by American and British homosexual composers—Britten included—which he believes will honor Britten’s courage in the face of inequality. Vickers has also commissioned the American composer Zachary Wadsworth to write a song cycle especially for the occasion. The tenor will be joined by pianist Karyl Carlson, an Illinois State professor, and Britten scholar Lucy Walker for the recital.
“In so many ways, Britten means the world to me,” Vickers said. “The greatest way I can support and contribute to the legacy of Britten’s music is by performing, writing, speaking, and research.”
John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.