Young Apollo

Benjamin Britten

Young Apollo

Op. 16

About this work

Young Apollo was written for the CBC shortly after Britten arrived in Canada. He played the piano part in the premiere broadcast. Later, he withdrew the composition from his official catalogue and its opus number was retired. It was revived some years after the composer's death.

One has to concede that this is a lesser Britten work. Its tonal plan is unsatisfying. It is written in a radiant A Major tonality. It has been pointed out that Britten often uses this key to express ideal, Apollonian beauty, as, for instance, he uses it to musically describe Tadziu, the lovely Polish youth with whom the hero of his opera Death in Venice falls in love." Britten seemed naturally drawn to this key when writing of such idealized beauty. And a work which is entirely about Apollo must, perforce, be "Apollonian" throughout.

Based on a Keats poem, Young Apollo depicts how, having been called to be the new god of Beauty, Apollo throws off his mortal form in a convulsion and stands in the dazzling aspect of the sun-god.

Much as it might seem that this idea might appeal to Britten, it failed to result in an inspired work. While there is a great deal of imagination in the details of the string writing, the work relies much too heavily on an aggressively repeated A Major scale. The problem, I fancy, is that in this piece the ideal of beauty is attained, not yearned for by a mortal protagonist like Aschenbach (or a supernatural one like the ghost Peter Quint in the opera The Turn of the Screw.) Furthermore, this new-born perfection is practically by nature incorruptible, which is the opposite of the notion of the corruption or destruction of beauty and innocence, the theme that fuels so much of Britten's artistic work. (It even is in back of his other major theme, pacifism, for there is no greater destroyer of youth and innocence than war.)

Thus, to this writer the composition expresses little more than a certain feeling of vitality. For the completist, it is worth collecting as the origin of a gesture of his musical vocabulary that he was to put to better use later.