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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

November 1963: The Month That Changed The Guitar, And The World, Forever

In a TV interview in the late 1960's Humphrey Burton asked composer Benjamin Britten a question out of the blue. So far the conversation had been about Britten and his music. Softly spoken and understated in his answers, Britten revealed himself a quietly thoughtful artist of firm opinions. As if to spice things up a bit the interviewer bowled him a spinning top of a question:
"What do you think of the Beatles?" There you are; Ben, catch that one if you can. And he did. Without the slightest hesitation he replied:
"They are a fresh voice", and as he said so he relaxed and smiled.

On the 11th November 1963 Britten signed and dated the manuscript of his latest composition: the Nocturnal after John Dowland op. 70. It would be his only solo piece. Julian Bream premiered and recorded it the following year. But from the moment that Britten finished the music the world of guitar music changed, although we didn't know it at the time.

By November the Beatles had enjoyed their first number one hits: From me to you and She loves you. They were on a roll, and not just a roll, but the roll of all time. They were looking forward to their first gigs in the North of England later that month, and to the release of their album With The Beatles already enjoying massive pre-release sales.

In the United States the first news about the Beatles phenomenon was filtering into the press, while President John Kennedy was starting out on his re-election campaign for 1964, touring through key areas of the country. Dallas, Texas, was on the agenda.

11 days after the completion of the Nocturnal Britten arose to celebrate his 50th birthday, as did much of the UK. His immensely popular music from Gloriana was programmed as a celebratory event at the Royal Albert Hall. BBC TV had scheduled a special programme about him including the first mention of his life with singer Peter Pears.

On that same day 22nd November the LP With The Beatles was scheduled for release, while the Beatles themselves were making an appearance in Teeside at Stockton´s The Globe Theatre. Although we did't realise it at the time the Beatles were changing pop music for ever.

President Kennedy arrived in Dallas that morning ready to drive in an open car through the streets in the early afternoon (early evening in the UK). Meanwhile in Franco's Spain, composer Joaquín Rodrigo, was also feeling like a celebration. 22nd November, St Cecilia´s day, was his birthday too. And what better day for composers than St. Cecilia´s day, the patron saint of music?

The Beatles presented two shows, the first at 6.15 and the second at 8.30. At some time between the two shows news came through that President Kennedy had been shot. Within thirty minutes came the dreaded confirmation: he was dead. At the Royal Albert Hall, the performance of Britten's Gloriana was halted. No one could have been more disturbed than Britten himself by the news of the assassination of the youngest President in the history of the USA. His humanitarian and pacifist concerns were well-known. His previous work the Cantata Misericordium op.69, composed for the centennial of the International Red Cross had been first performed in Geneva on the 1st of September and was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his previous work to that had been the War Requiem, premiered in 1962. During the 2nd World War he had been a conscientious objector.

Meanwhile fans from the first Beatles concert were streaming out of the hall to hear of the news. As young as they were, many of them went home in tears, the news completely overshadowing the elation of the concert. I was 14 years old at the time, and I knew straight away that something had changed forever.

By July the music of the Nocturnal came to life in a never-to-be-surpassed series of performances and an RCA recording by Julian Bream. The majesty of the music, and the dramatic climax as the music resolves into a serene major chord before the Dowland song provided an artistic high point for the guitar and earned it a new respect.

Up to that day, 1963 had been a good year for me. I discovered there was a world of music beyond the 'classical'. I listened to rhythm and blues, to Indian ragas, to old time blues-artists with haunting voices sounding as if they came straight from the cotton-pickin´ fields of the deep South (and some of them did), and to the Beatles.

Maybe the November 1963 timings of apparently unrelated events are pure coincidence. There certainly was no co-ordinated plan to release the Beatles album on the day of Britten's 50th birthday while the President's assassin took up his position, nor that the Nocturnal would be finished 11 days previously. But historical changes can emerge from pure coincidences and combine eventually into one bigger picture. Those changes can be a long time in coming as unrelated events. Or maybe historical changes can be like waiting for a bus that never arrives, and then what do you know, three come along at the same time. Deep down you know they didn't arrive together by chance; events further down the line of which we are not aware at the time made them happen. And so too with events on a larger canvas. 1963 was a time of change, and no month symbolised it more for us, particularly guitar players, as November.

In the present age important changes will come in music and politics when we least expect them, as happened fifty years ago. As then, at first we may not recognise their importance, and some of us will hate them.

This is what President Kennedy said:

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

Best to be ready then, for sooner or later the future will emerge to grab us by the hand, while we are waiting at the bus-stop looking the other way.

2nd December 2013, Cádiz, Spain

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