Some Notes on ‘Subjects', the Universal, and the Particular
Figure o.i shows Kazimir Malevich's 1932 painting, Red House, which is reproduced in colour on the cover of this book It is an image of some indeterminacy. The house could be on the coast, separated from a choppy sea by a white shingle beach. (It could be Aldeburgh. It could be the Red House!) Or it could be on the land, separated by a black tarmac road and empty white space from the sky. In the blank wall of the house, looking like a red Suprematist rectangle, there are no windows to allow us to see in or to allow the occupants to see out, at us looking at them. Nor are there any identifying marks that enable us to identify this as a particular house. Neither the landscape nor the weather nor the building itself nor its occupants or observers can be reduced to any particular existence. They are all universal, all caught up in a communal being-in-the-world. Like the faceless peasants or sportsmen whom Malevich painted at the same time, the house shows how the everyday and ordinary may be elevated by collective spirit. Britten's operas, like this painting, lie elementally open to analytical interpretation; and like this painting, the particularities of each opera quickly become, after a period of reflexion, indeterminate, shifting, and slippery. Ultimately, what appears on the surface to be a particular tale about an individual's suffering, sinning, or redemption, reveals itself to be more universal, a reflexion not just on an individual but on a social totality: a work, that is, that is shot through with ideology.
With a focus on the operas of Britten, this book is more particular than my last, The Quilting Points of Musical Modernism (which was in essence a general theory), but it addresses the problem of the universalism of music no less directly, and in important ways it builds on the foundations of the earlier book. In choosing to examine the ideological themes that I do in this book, I inevitably have to shine an interrogative light not only on Britten's representation of ideology but also of our society's continued embroilment in it.