Friday Afternoons with Benjamin Britten

Children from Suffolk and Yorkshire sing Friday Afternoons at the Royal Albert Hall this month. Photograph: Anna McCarthy
Children from Suffolk and Yorkshire singing at Royal Albert Hall last week. Photograph: Anna McCarthy


Last Friday, children across the world came together to sing.

Friday Afternoonsa global project designed to promote singing in schools, began in 2011 as part of celebrations of the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Last year, 67,000 students around the world participated in the live-streamed event, organized by Aldenburgh Music.

In the early 1930s, Benjamin Britten wrote a collection of twelve songs called Friday Afternoons for students at the Clive House School in Prestatyn in northeast Wales. The songs, which include “Cuckoo!” and the canon, “Old Abram Brown”feature catchy, repetitive phrases and a strong sense of pulse, elements which appeal to young children. This year, in the spirit of Britten, twelve new children’s songs were written by composers including Nico Muhly, Rachel Portman, and the 14-year-old Zoe Dixon. Listen to all of the songs here and watch a segment of the event.

The benefits are obvious. Children develop aural and rhythmic skills by singing and listening to music from an early age. This development can lead to a meaningful, lifelong relationship with music.

Archeologists believe that music predated language. Throughout most of history, music was produced live and was experienced collectively. In an era of iTunes downloads and silent discosFriday Afternoons restores the joy of collective music making, this time on a global level.

Friday Afternoons offers us a great opportunity to evaluate our priorities. For too long, society has offered token support for music and arts education while simultaneously tolerated cliched statements like, “we just don’t have the money” or “we need to focus on basics to train a competitive work force.” The 1999 film Music of the Heart impacted emotions and ideals without translating into a deeper and more enlightened commitment to the role of music in a complete education. If the future of the world relies on peaceful cooperation between countries, educated, thoughtful citizens, and the unleashing of the creative force, what could be more relevant than an event like Friday Afternoons?

A Ceremony of Carols

…and while we’re on the subject of Benjamin Britten, let’s kick off the Christmas season with This Little Babe from A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, performed by the King’s College Choir of Cambridge:

Singing Along with the Vacuum Cleaner

composer Nico Muhly
composer Nico Muhly

What inescapable sounds surround us in the twenty-first century and how do they influence music? Nico Muhly’s 2012 albumDrones, is music which seems to emerge from the hum of the refrigerator or vacuum cleaner.

Muhly (b.1981) studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Julliard, served as Philip Glass’s copyist, and has collaborated with Björk and Usher. Like Gabriel Kahane, his style, which blends elements of rock and electronic music, is hard to pin down. Read an interview with Muhly about the music here.

Listen to Drones and Piano and consider how the music flows and develops. As I listened, I remembered that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony  emerges out of silence with a similar open fifth drone…a raw musical element which embraces all possibilities.

Here is what Nico Muhly says about the piece:

I started writing the Drones pieces as a method of developing harmonic ideas over a static structure. The idea is something not unlike singing along with one’s vacuum cleaner, or with the subtle but constant humming found in most dwelling-places. We surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honor these drones and stylize them…The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant c#, with an ever-changing top note: f#, e#, or e.

The final track on the CD is called Drones in Large Cycles:

Drones in Large Cycles gradually develops, becoming increasingly complex (listen to the multiple rhythmic layers around 5:08). It’s flowing through time, but is there any musical goal? Like many pop songs, and minimalism, this music is about enjoying the moment.

Silence is wildly important. In fact, something I always remember from one of my very first music teachers is that music begins with silence…I find “observed silence” to be quite beautiful. Think about the moment on a transatlantic flight — a noisy affair — when everybody’s basically asleep? I love that sound. My parents’ house in Vermont in the winter can be as silent as the grave, punctuated by the weird sound of ice melting on the roof.  Heaven.

-Nico Muhly