I remember vividly the first time I heard the music of Benjamin Britten. It was a vinyl LP–33 RPM, at a time when 78 RPM records were still available and record players had three settings on them: 45 RPM, 33 RPM and 78 RPM. I imagine anyone much younger wouldn’t even know what that means. I imagine anyone born into CDs and laser technology might find us queer that we older guys have kinesthetic joy to have known three different sizes of records, three different weights, and holes in the centers of the records, setting the records on spindles that would drop the records one at a time after the needle clicked up, returned to hover over the cradle, the next record dropped, and the needle moved over and sat at the beginning, where spiral grooves moved the needle to the first sounds of the music. It was high tech at the time, and the feeling of the music became irrevocably bound to the mechanics of the phonograph machine, to the heaviness or lightness–to the bulk and the size–of the records themselves, and to the majesty of an orchestra playing through the cloth-covered front of the machine as I lay on the floor in front of it. My first record player was a Christmas gift from my grandfather. Accompany it was the complete music of Show Boat, all of them on 78 RPM records in a heavy cardboard jacket. I was 6 years old.
Or, as in the first time I ever heard Benjamin Britten, it was in the college music library in 1963 or 64, the door to the separate listening room closed with a window facing into the rest of the library. I sat at a blond ash table. At one end was the record player. The rest of the table was empty expect for the record I had selected. I carefully pulled the vinyl record from its jacket, set it on the short spindle rising from the turntable, a spindle only so long as to have room for one record at a time, and suddenly I heard the opening chords of his musical telling of the Good Samaritan story, written for Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for the 100th anniversary of the Red Cross, the “Cantata Misericordium”. Dormi nunc, amice.
I write this having just seen a performance of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Met. I can’t seem to help it: I am weeping by the end of the opera. The music amazes me, transports me, calls me into a world far, far beyond anywhere I am sitting. A friend leaned over and asked me about my love of Britten’s music. I said that Peter Grimes was the first of his operas I had heard and immediately felt the impact of the story and the music in my soul. He asked if I didn’t think La Boheme wasn’t the best opera of the 20th Century. “No,” I said. “The best opera is Peter Grimes.” “Oh,” he said, “I have never met anyone who thought that is the best opera of the 20th Century. May I touch your shirt sleeve?”