Chris Mark

Dr Chris Mark

Head of Department of Music and Media, BMus (Music) Programme Leader
BA (Hons), PhD
+44 (0)1483 686534
34 PA 01

Academic and research departments

Department of Music and Media.



Research interests



Christopher Mark (2022)The compositional context: creating a voice, In: Britten in Contextpp. 147-154 Cambridge University Press

The accident of parentage; impinging cultural, social, and political forces; unbidden encounters, events, and opportunities: these are not under a composer’s control, but can have a momentous impact on personal and compositional development. Consequence is not, however, inevitable. So for those trying to gain insight into a composer’s world, his or her decision-making is more important than mere factual circumstance: how they respond to the environment of which they are a part, and, not least, the myriad decisions undertaken in the creation of a compositional persona and in the course of actual composition. This chapter surveys the compositional environment in which Britten made his entrance. It took Britten a while to find the most powerful and ambitious means of employing simplicity, in pursuit of a complexity formed from the density and quality of relationships rather than the mere overlaying, entanglement, or busyness of complicatedness. This quest is traced with reference to some key works, while noting that Britten’s eclecticism refreshes a strong individual voice to the end of his career.

Christopher Mark (2022)An English Tradition?, In: Britten in Contextpp. 180-187 Cambridge University Press

Is there such a thing as an English compositional tradition in the twentieth century? And if so, what is Britten’s place in it? Harrison Birtwistle thought not, and one can understand why. There is no obvious point of continuity from one generation to another: Parry and Elgar’s reference points are Austro-German, while Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’s music is modally based and considerably affected by English folk music. Delius spent most of his life outside England, and his aesthetic and compositional predilections are the most difficult to relate to a tradition. Britten and Tippett both abjured what they saw as the stultifying nationalism of Holst and Vaughan Williams and embraced aspects of international modernism. Despite the fractures, however, there are aspects in common: it is through themes from English landscape and literature that connections between generations are most clearly seen: in pastoralism, for instance, whether ‘soft’ or ‘hard’; in the role of melancholy; in the preference for particular genres; and in the reworking of aspects of the English musical past.

C Mark (2011)Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten, 1928-1938, In: MUSIC & LETTERS92(1)pp. 153-158 OXFORD UNIV PRESS
C Mark (2011)Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Work, In: MUSIC & LETTERS92(1)pp. 153-158 OXFORD UNIV PRESS
C Mark (2008)'Sing, ariel': Essays and thoughts for Alexander Goehr's seventieth birthday, In: MUSIC & LETTERS89(2)pp. 287-290 OXFORD UNIV PRESS
C Mark (2007)Vaughan Williams and the symphony., In: MUSIC & LETTERS88(3)pp. 542-545 OXFORD UNIV PRESS
Christopher Mark (2018)Bridge and Britten, Britten and Bridge, In: Music and Letters99(1)pp. 45-73 Oxford University Press (OUP)

Britten and Bridge have been bracketed together since Britten’s tribute to his teacher in his fiftieth-birthday reminiscence. It was largely through Britten’s endeavours that Bridge’s name was kept alive during the forties and fifties, through the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, while Britten’s programming of Bridge’s music in Aldeburgh Festival concerts and the publication of select late scores by his own publisher, Faber Music, led the revival of interest in the music. Mark Amos suggests that ‘an unhooking from Britten and his inherent cultural baggage is now essential if we are to understand Bridge on his own terms’. The contention in this essay, though, is that there is still something to be learned about Bridge through Britten, through what Britten writes about him, and especially through an examination of the music they both composed during and immediately after Britten’s apprenticeship.

A Moore, C Mark (2004)Editorial, In: twentieth-century music1(1)pp. 3-4 Cambridge University Press

Initial editorial for this new journal

CM Mark (2017)Britten and the Augmented Sixth, In: VP Stroeher, J Vickers (eds.), Benjamin Britten Studies: Essays on An Inexplicit Art(10) Boydell Press

This essay is an attempt to gain further understanding of Britten’s particular reworking, or reconception, of tonality through an examination of his use of one of its most distinctive constructs, the augmented-sixth chord. The topic was prompted initially by Derrick Puffett’s claim in an article on the String Quartet No. 2 by Britten’s contemporary Michael Tippett that, in contrast with Tippett in the movement Puffett is analyzing, ‘Britten … is not noted for his fondness for augmented sixths’. Puffett is correct that Britten is not well known for this, but wrong in his assumption that he shouldn’t be. In fact, if one searches merely the output preceding his first opera, Peter Grimes (1945), one can find at least eight works in which the augmented sixth has a significant structural role.

Christopher Mark (2017)Back to the Future: Chopin in Smalley, In: Chopin 1810-2010: Ideas, Interpretations, Influence : the Third International Chopin Congress, Warsaw, 25 February to 1 March 20102pp. 635-649 Fryderyk Chopin Institute

During the second half of the 1970s and ’80s, a number of composers who had previously pursued what has sometimes been referred to as a ‘hard-line modernist stance’ began to ‘soften’. A well-known example is György Ligeti, whose music began to make reference to traditional tonality and Romantic gestures in works such as the Horn Trio of 1982 and the piano Preludes of 1985. Another example is Krzysztof Penderecki, who, as Adrian Thomas puts it in Grove Online, ‘relaxed his compositional language in the mid-1970s to give lyrical melody the central role in both his vocal and instrumental music’. In England Peter Maxwell Davies talked about a kind of tonal structuring in his music and began a series of symphonies, whilst in the late 1980s, at a Symposium of the International Musicological Society in Melbourne, another English composer, Jonathan Harvey, outlined his own newfound interest in writing melody, noting that this activity (even though it had nothing to do in his case with a return to traditional tonality or gestures associated with the past) would have been ideologically impossible for him before that point. The motivations of these composers and others like them were various and the musical results diverse, but the available documentary evidence (their writings and interviews with them) suggests that there was a general desire to increase the expressive range of their music and to communicate more directly with their audience.

C Mark (2004)Later orchestral music (1910-1934), In: DGAJ Rushton (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Operapp. 154-170 Cambridge University Press
CM Mark (2013)Britten: An Extraordinary Life Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

In this centenary biography, Christopher Mark traces the impact on Britten's musical output of his physical and cultural environment, his shifting musical and personal relationships, and his emerging sense of sexual identity. What is revealed is not only a life conditioned by a compulsion to compose, but one which seems increasingly to reflect Britten's aesthetic imperatives.

Christopher Mark (2018)Constant Lambert: A Critic for Today? A Commentary on Music Ho!, In: Jeremy Dibble, Julian Horton (eds.), British Music Criticism and Intellectual Thought, 1850-1950pp. 278-303 Boydell Press

"Lambert was a Roman candle: he flared up brilliantly, then was gone." Stephen Walsh’s assessment epitomizes the generally received view of Constant Lambert (1905–51). The book he was reviewing when he made this remark, Stephen Lloyd’s Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (2014), rounds out Lambert’s key musical activities as composer, conductor, and writer in great detail (at times, as Walsh points out, risking overload) in an attempt to encourage interest beyond the work in the title. But it seems likely that, without a parallel champion in the realm of performance, Rio Grande (1927) will indeed continue to be the item from his output by which he is best known, even if its brand of jazz-tinted exoticism induces little of its original effect on an audience of today much more familiar with the idiom. Walsh asserts the case for ‘a handful of works belong[ing] in the repertoire’, including Eight Poems of Li-Po (1926–9) in the ensemble version, Music for Orchestra (1927), and the Concerto for Piano and Nine Players (1930–31). To this might be added his setting of words from Thomas Nashe’s Pleasant Comedy in Summer’s Last Will and Testament (1932–5), despite its failing to transcend the sum of its most striking moments, the latter stages of the purely orchestral sixth movement, Rondo burlesca (King Pest) and the climax and aftermath of the final Saraband. But for all his technical skill and inventiveness, Lambert’s compositional voice lacks sufficient distinctiveness of personality to secure more than an occasional airing. His two other principal activities, conducting and journalism, are ephemeral in the literal sense, though some of the performances he recorded – catalogued by Lloyd over eighteen pages of appendix – are still commercially available and of historical interest. They include the first recording of Walton’s Façade (1922–9, rev. 1942, 1951, 1977), with Edith Sitwell reciting, in 1929 (the Waltons and the Sitwells were his neighbours in Chelsea); the first recording of Warlock’s The Curlew (1920–22) in 1931, a performance that is rather unsteady in rhythm and intonation at times, and marred by traffic noises during the opening bars; a 1946 recording of Delius’s Piano Concerto (in the original 1897 version) with Benno Moiseiwitsch; and selections of ballet music with the Sadler’s Wells and Philharmonia Orchestras.

How does one go about writing the history of musical composition in the late twentieth century when, on the one hand, so much of it seems impossibly fractured and disassociated, and, on the other, there has been so little certainty about what the notion of 'music history' might entail under the critiques of post-modernism? One of the most productive ways forward is to pursue case studies involving single composers whose music reflects several aspects of recent activity. This enables the discussion of broad issues in a relatively focussed way whilst avoiding the pitfalls of traditional narrative histories and the centrifugal tendencies of the relativistic approach that some have called for. The music of the English-born (1943) and Australia-domiciled composer Roger Smalley is ideal material for such a study, because of his involvement with and response to an unusually large number of the myriad concerns and practices of post-1950s composition, including post-serial constructivism; parody; electro-acoustic composition and the electronic modification of conventionally-produced sound; Moment Form; aleatorism; minimalism; the use of non-Western resources (Aboriginal and South-East Asian sonorities); neo-Romanticism; and, arguably, the 'new classicism', as well as a brief flirtation with rock music in the late '60s. Employing an interview with the composer as a kind of cantus firmus, the book – the first extended single-author study of Smalley's music to be published – incorporates critical commentary on the composer's major works in a chronological narrative that engages with broad issues of central relevance to Smalley's generation, such as the process of learning the craft of composition in the early '60s; the motivation behind the adoption of certain technical and aesthetic positions; the effects on technical and aesthetic orientation of both the changing relationships between composer, performer, and audience and technological change; and the distinction between 'late-' and 'post-' modernism in music.

Christopher Mark (2009)Supported by Tradition: Sonority, Form, and Transcendence in Britten’s String Quartets’, In: E Jones (eds.), Intimate Voices: Aspects of Construction and Character in the Twentieth-Century String Quartetpp. 41-74 University of Rochester Press

Donald Mitchell: Ben, you were talking about some composers—some, only—young composers, who reject the past. Well, of course, certainly that has never happened in your case. To a composer standing at the point of his life where you do today [February 1969], you have a great inheritance, not only in your own music but also with regard to the past. I would like to ask you how it feels standing in that situation? And are you conscious of this wonderfully exciting but also great burden of tradition behind you? Benjamin Britten: [A long pause.] I’m supported by it, Donald. I couldn’t be alone. I couldn’t work alone. I can only work really because of the tradition that I am conscious of behind me.

C Mark (2005)Constructing tonality: Smalley as (post-) modernist, In: G Hair (eds.), Modernism in Australian Music 1950-2000
C Mark (2007)Glimpsing the kingdom?: "by the wayside" from The Apostles and the Idyllic, In: JPE Harper-Scott (eds.), Elgar Studiespp. 78-98 CUP
C Mark (2005)Taking the Plunge: Opera in England, In: M Cooke (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Operapp. 209-221 Cambridge University Press
CM Mark (2013)Chamber music and works for soloist with orchestra, In: A Frogeley, A Thomson (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williamspp. 179-198 Cambridge University Press
CM Mark (2013)An excess of less? Critiquing Britten's late song cycles, In: P Rupprecht (eds.), Rethinking Brittenpp. 209-236 Oxford University Press

Britten’s later song cycles – by which I mean those composed after War Requiem: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965), The Poet’s Echo (1965), Who are these children? (1969), and A Birthday Hansel (1975) – are not amongst his most frequently performed and recorded, or, one suspects on the basis of this, his most loved works. Critical response has been varied. Evans and Whittall both accord them a good deal of space in their major writings on the composer and find much of value in them, whilst acknowledging in The Poet’s Echo a degree of ‘caution’ and even a degree of frigidity in the setting of the text, and in the Blake settings a degree of ‘despondency […] not of the easy kind in which audiences like to envelop themselves’. Robin Holloway, meanwhile, sees these song-cycles as being representative of what might be called ‘an excess of less’: 'whilst Curlew River was a unique triumph of paring down, there is a point where the paradox of less-because-more becomes strained; pregnant parsimony miscarries; the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. Much in his later music crosses this threshold: the conspicuous loss of sensuous surface in the later song-cycles, the grit and grind of the cello suites, the sourness of much of Children’s Crusade and much of Wingrave. Such music certainly seems to require more of us than it gives.' And in another context he writes of the sixties being ‘the drabbest decade in his output, with gritty cello suites, bleak cycles of Blake and Soutar, the steeply diminishing returns of the two church parables that followed Curlew River, the lack-lustre Voices for Today and the feeble Owen Wingrave’. The first part of this essay suggests reasons for the narrowing down. Firstly there was the matter of compositional identity. Britten was a highly competitive spirit, and if he felt he was in competition with a rising generation of English composers (Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle), and especially with Tippett, self-essentialization would not be surprising; and for the composer who avowed in 1963 that ‘to tear all the waste away’ was his aim, dogged pursuit of exactly this may seem inevitable. It might also be speculated that the need for the twin demands of stylistic renewal and continued communicability required an initial narrowing (followed in Death in Venice and other contemporary works by signs of a opening out). It can also be argued that biographical circumstances played a part. The sixties were a difficult decade for Britten: there seems to have been some sort of crisis regarding the attention accorded to War Requiem (this might have revolved around public expectation and the scrutiny of new pieces: it is known that some projects were scuppered after press speculation); he had equally ambiguous feelings about the establishment status that he had gradually acquired; there were increasing international demands and performing demands; there were the stresses of driving and developing the Aldeburgh Festival (including fire in 1969); and there were almost constant health concerns. The second part of the essay focuses on critique of the music, reviewing Evans’s and Whittall’s technical assessments and also placing the late song-cycles within the context of his song-writing in general and other works of the sixties. This will entail some discussion in technical terms, but with the broader readership for whom the volume is intended in mind.

CM Mark (1995)Early Benjamin Britten Garland

Additional publications