Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Advance Democracy, composed in November of 1938, is a piece of unabashed political propaganda commissioned by the London Co-operative Society. At a time of great anxiety in Europe and on the eve of the second World War, this poem by Randall Swingler, editor of The Left Review in London, paints a dark picture of the threat of dictatorship if democracy doesn’t “rise up and cry that what our fathers fought for we’ll not allow to die”. It is a strange piece. However, Britten, a ardent pacifist, elevates the text and paints a very clever picture with a long legato line moving constantly through the texture from soprano to bass and back. Around this swirling figure the other parts sing sharply punctuated chords that are full of menace. The final section moves into the major (Britten’s brightly flag-waving C major) and the ending is forcefully emphatic. Swingler’s words, now eighty years old and on this 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, seem strikingly, if not critically, relevant right now.

©Paul Spicer with edits and additions by Ryan Turner

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