For someone growing up with the music of Benjamin Britten, it was sometimes hard to recall that his last name was not ‘Britain’. The race that Nietzsche had deemed heavy-hoofed and unmusical, whose last truly great composer had been Purcell, a nation that had been doing nothing very much, musically, but warbling in cathedrals for a couple of centuries, had somehow managed to produce a 20th-century composer of international stature, whose last name was that of the nation itself. We’d done it! Here was Benjamin Britain OM, ‘Baron Britain of Aldeburgh’, whose Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was as close to state music as a piece not actually the national anthem could be, and which cleverly merged spiky modern fugue with a stately theme from Purcell himself. In the same way, his many songs and adapted folk songs sounded a bit old and a bit new, or a bit English and a bit Continental. Palatable modernity: a good postwar flag under which to assemble. No wonder the school system flew it so often, in those countless ‘musical appreciation’ classes.
Approved, canonical Britten was also present outside school – fittingly, in church. No contemporary composer of similar standing had written as much sacred music for choirs. At Durham, as a cathedral chorister, I sang his sparkling Te Deum and Jubilate, and the beautiful anthems Hymn to St Cecilia (classy words by Auden, usefully decent treble solo)and Hymn to St Peter (eerie plainsong effect, also with coveted treble solo opportunity). In the cathedral, thrillingly at night, that enormous building dark and mysterious beyond our spotlit oasis, we thrashed our way through an evening performance of Noye’s Fludde, aided by a few glamorously affectless university string players. This is Britten’s great piece of community music-theatre, his version of the medieval Chester miracle play, premiered in 1958 at the Aldeburgh Festival, in Orford church. It is a sacred incitement to amateurism: a small professional orchestra anchors the excitement, while children are allowed to saw at violins, trill through recorders, yawp down bugles, and hit various items of domestic percussion, including sandpaper and many mugs slung on strings. I was Ham, one of Noah’s sons (the three sons, Britten specifies, should have ‘well-trained voices and lively personalities. They should not be too young – perhaps between 11 and 15’). But the honour was tarnished. On dress rehearsal day, I clumsily trod on a plastic bag belonging to the Bishop of Durham’s son (envied and reviled because a chauffeur drove him to school, though in a modest Citroën 2CV). The bag contained eight mugs, collected in the Bishop’s Palace, painstakingly chosen for their precise ventriloquism of an octave.
There was, of course, an unofficial Britten, one we choristers knew little about. This one was not the coaxer of communities but perhaps their opponent or dissident. He was the committed pacifist and conscientious objector, the creator of the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940),commissioned and then rejected by the Japanese government, officially because it was too melancholy and too ‘Christian’, but probably also because it assaults and deconstructs martial patriotism, replacing it (in a gentle, Mahlerian final movement) with a vision of comity and brotherhood. He was the explorer of shifting tonalities, wayward harmonies, creeping chromaticism. He was the composer drawn to the gullies between notes, the almost-mystic of the spare Third String Quartet (1975). He was the homosexual whose operas like Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice broach and repress difficult erotic material: same-sex desire, murderous lust, the love of boys and young men, the contamination of innocence. Had we but known it, we might have found most of this other Britten hiding in the joyous racket of Noye’s Fludde: all those young boys, for one thing; an apparently Christian pageant that sometimes feels more like a complaint against God than a celebration; a body of musicians designed – because of the presence of so many children – to be out of tune with itself, so that the notes are constantly shifting and wavering, unsettling the consolations of Tallis’s Canon (which is sung as the cast processes out of the church); a homespun cacophony.
Two biographies, by Paul Kildea and Neil Powell, intelligently appraise this official and unofficial Britten, and are rich with contradiction. Britten was quietly radical and quietly conservative. He was a joiner and a separatist: he lived most of his life in Suffolk, well away from London, which he disliked, and became that county’s most famous native son. The annual Aldeburgh Festival, which he and his partner Peter Pears founded, was in many ways scrupulously communitarian, involving local halls, churches and craftsmen. But many felt that Britten ran it with iron caprice, surrounded by a gang of insiders, quickly dismissing those who fell out of favour. Warm, simple, even a little childlike with those he trusted, he could become unreadably distant with those he did not. When Auden, who for slightly mysterious reasons had been dropped, sent him a letter about his opera Gloriana, Britten returned it to him in the same envelope, torn into tiny pieces.
In later life, grandly established, he was commissioned to write a song-cycle for the queen mother’s 75th birthday, got the queen to open the Maltings, his fine new festival hall, and holidayed with minor European royalty. But he was himself of solidly middle-class origin, the son of a Lowestoft dentist, and often seemed to care very little about social status, just as long as his orderly days allowed for hours of composition and music-making. He seemed averse to formal politics, yet his life was constituted by unavoidably political gestures: his pacifism, his departure to the United States on the eve of the Second World War, the themes of many of his operas, his friendship with Soviet musicians like Rostropovich and Shostakovich, and his homosexuality, calmly professed in his long, stable relationship with Peter Pears, mostly in a time of legal prohibition.
‘It’s very odd you know, but it’s never happened before in the middle classes,’ Britten’s mother once said about her son’s musical genius. Perhaps this, then, is the originating contradiction: prodigiousness in the parlour, heat in a mild climate. The English bourgeoisie, good for parsons, soldiers and schoolmasters, doesn’t produce great composers. Britten was never bohemian (like Auden, say, a difference which perhaps contributed to the death of their early friendship), and for much of his life managed things – or had things managed for him – as if he were still in boarding school. Suffolk summers, even when Britten was middle-aged, involved cricket, tennis, swimming, brass-rubbing in local churches. And school food, also. There is a wonderful moment in Tony Palmer’s film about Britten, A Time There Was, when the composer’s housekeeper, Miss Hudson, explains in her beautiful East Anglian accent, what kind of food he and Pears liked:
They were home-cookin’ lovers, but Mr Pears come home from abroad and he’d bring a Continental recipe for me to do; he was more for food than Mr Britten … Mr Pears would say: ‘Well, Mr Britten likes nursery food, you know, ’e likes his nice milk pudding.’ I said, ‘Yes, but he likes it nice, nice creamy milk pudding’ … Mr Britten also liked Spotted Dog [camera briefly rests on dachshund curled up by Miss Hudson’s side] … you never had to stint with anything, but Mr Britten had to be careful because he hadn’t got strong insides like Mr Pears had.
But the English bourgeoisie is never really as bourgeois as it seems; what V.S. Pritchett called practical madness is always invading. There was some of that at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft, where Britten was born in 1913. Edith Britten, a pianist and singer of reasonable talent, relentlessly pushed her brilliant youngest son, who was composing from about the age of six. Basil Reeve, a family friend, thought that Edith comprehensively ‘ran’ Benjamin’s life, and said that she was determined he would become ‘the fourth B’, to join Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Daily, after lunch, Benjamin played Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll to his mother. Edith intervened at school, in order to clear more space for her son’s music-making, and gathered a fine group of teachers for him including, momentously, the composer Frank Bridge. Britten’s father, Robert, the dentist, is more mysterious. He was deeply unmusical; Basil Reeve and others thought that he had no faith in his son’s ability to make a musical career. But there is an intensely moving letter, written by Robert on the first successful run-through of his son’s work, A Boy Was Born, in 1933; surely Paul Kildea is too cool when he describes this letter as evincing merely ‘warmth and approval’. It is a peal of delight, an astonishingly uninhibited and tender gesture, the kind of letter sons dream of receiving from their fathers:
Hearty congratulations! Over and over again and also envy & jealousy.
Oh! Ben my boy what does it feel like to hear your own creation?
Didn’t you want to get up and shout – It’s mine! It’s mine! … What a break to get a crowd who would really do it as you want it. I want to cry!
Thanks for letting us know so soon we were all on edge to hear.
Go on my son
Kildea, the deeper, more probing of the two biographers, describes well the deep musical immersion of Britten’s early years. He was a student at the Royal College of Music, which he entered in 1930, but found the atmosphere ‘amateurish and folksy’. Britten wanted only to ‘develop’, as he put it years later, ‘a consciously controlled professional technique. It was a struggle away from everything Vaughan Williams seemed to stand for.’ Vaughan Williams taught composition at the RCM, but Britten bypassed him anyway. Since the age of 14 he had been having lessons with Frank Bridge; his mother would take him to London in the school holidays, ‘sometimes staying overnight to have a second lesson the following morning’. Britten remembered one session that began at half-past ten, ‘and at tea time Mrs Bridge came in and said: “Really, you must give the boy a break.”’ He went to concerts, listened to concert broadcasts, studied scores, practised the viola and piano. His piano teacher, Arthur Benjamin, told him he had to practise four hours a day if he was to become a serious performer, though Britten only managed, at best, three. He often went to sleep with a score by his pillow. It was a hunt for only one prey, a journey of monotonous distinction, which never really widened. Throughout these biographies, and notwithstanding Britten’s splendid ear for verse, one has little sense of the composer taking much interest in any art but music.
Britten not only developed, as a composer, a ‘consciously controlled professional technique’, but helped to enlarge a similarly professional technique in British music-making. Kildea, himself a conductor and music administrator, offers an authoritative account of the amateurism of British musical performance in the first few decades of the last century. You can see the old photographs and hear the early orchestral recordings, with their patchy intonation. Elgar, Adrian Boult, Henry Wood, Thomas Beecham: the gentleman-conductors held sway, stiff and upholstered on the podium, their white moustaches like frozen waterfalls, their batons cocked like riding crops. Elgar famously told the teenaged Yehudi Menuhin, who was about to record his Violin Concerto under the composer’s direction, not to worry about rehearsing – he was off to the races. Menuhin took it as a sporting example of English phlegm, as indeed it was. But while Menuhin sounds wonderful in the 1932 recording, the orchestra could have done with some polishing.The founding of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930 and the London Philharmonic in 1932 helped establish new levels of professionalism, but in general London orchestras were poorly funded and inexpertly led. Young Britten gnashed his teeth at Boult (‘terrible execrable conductor’), thought Beecham a ‘vandal’, and felt that Vaughan Williams shouldn’t be let near an orchestra: ‘a very nice man,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘but he shouldn’t conduct. It was hopeless. The concert came over quite well; it wasn’t the wireless’s fault. But, oh, the ragged entries, the half-hearted & doubtful playing.’ Opera was even worse off. As Kildea notes, ‘the musical infrastructure that even minor German cities took for granted simply did not exist’ in London. There was no public funding of the arts, and not much of the private patronage that enriched American music. There was little history, in Britain, of sustained opera creation; Covent Garden had no permanent company until after the war.
Britten’s contribution to this atmosphere of inspired lunging and second-division fogginess was threefold: his own work, which stretched and prodded British players and singers (Eric Crozier thought the Sadler’s Wells orchestra, which premiered Peter Grimes in 1945, ‘little more than competent’); the example of his musical performance, as conductor and accompanist; and his work as the impresario of the Aldeburgh Festival. He was the pianist at the premiere of his own Piano Concerto, in 1938, at the Queen’s Hall, and accompanied Peter Pears in the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo in the London premiere at the Wigmore Hall, in 1942. He conducted Billy Budd at Covent Garden in 1951, and was one of the two conductors of the War Requiem, in Coventry, in 1962. Aldeburgh, of course, was the site of many musical adventures: Britten and Pears performing the Winterreise (1961); the country’s first complete performance in German of the St Matthew Passion (1950); and in the 1960s, Britten and Rostropovich, and Britten and Richter. By the time of his death in 1976, the British musical scene was utterly transformed, and genial amateurism hard to find. Britten’s music, which Vaughan Williams had once described as ‘very clever but beastly’, music which, in the 1930s and early 1940s, had sometimes occasioned sniggers of critical derision (‘dire nonsense’, thought the Observer’s finely named A.H. Fox Strangways), had created the climate of its own prosperity.
That derision played a part in Britten’s decision to leave the country in 1939. Frank Bridge came to see the boat off at Southampton, and handed Britten his own Giussani viola, and a letter, with the finely Jamesian imperative: ‘Just go on expanding.’ Britten was only 25. The intensity of that expansion, which continued to his death, can be tested when compared with its lack in his nearest English rival, William Walton, born 11 years before him. Walton’s career began in brilliance and ended in conformity. Britten told Walton that hearing the latter’s Viola Concerto, in 1931, was a turning point in his musical life. In the late 1920s, Walton was the great hope of English music; he was going to do what Britten did in his Violin Concerto (1940), and mesh a native English sonority with the excitements of the European avant-garde. The Viola Concerto is a beautifully sinuous, mellowly dissonant work; Paul Hindemith was its first soloist in 1929. But Walton’s music became steadily more conservative. He produced Crown Imperial for the 1937 Coronation, an exercise in velvety patriotism – Elgar in pretender’s slippers – while Britten pondered leaving the country. Britten attacked war and the death-dealing of war in different ways during the 1940s (the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Holy Sonnets of John Donne),while Walton churned out music for coercive films like Henry V and The First of the Few. In his Violin Concerto, Britten inaugurated an always changing, unpredictable, lifelong obsession with the form known as the passacaglia, in which variations are played out over repetitive (literally, ‘street-walking’) bass motifs. In his Henry V music, Walton wrote a famous passacaglia for the death of Falstaff – fine, placid, conventional.
Britten’s journey to America was seen, in usual and sometimes unusual quarters, as cowardly flight. It was easy for conservative politicians and homophobic journalists to slay a many-headed monster, with the ghastly visages of Auden, Isherwood and Britten. Even Cyril Connolly muttered about ‘ambitious young men … with an eye on the main chance’. But unlike Auden, Britten seemed keen to return almost as soon as he arrived in the States. It was in America, despite a great deal of musical ‘expanding’, that he came to realise how English he was, how he needed to plant himself in native soil. He went back to England in 1942.
Britten said later of his time in America that ‘we were children before, men after.’ ‘We’ meant Britten and Pears: the two men became lovers early in 1940; it’s possible that this was Britten’s first consummated relationship. His sexuality seems mysterious – not in its orientation, which was unwavering, but in its expression. The Britten-Pears union was passionate, moving in its deep fidelity and consonance, but not greatly erotic. Kildea says that Britten, always monogamous, became celibate in later life. Gay references and subcultures made him uneasy; he did not like socialising with gay couples. His assistant, Colin Matthews, ‘thought the repression extended to all brands of sexuality, not merely his own’. He was most himself, it seems, when permitted to enter into avuncular relations with handsome teenage boys, sex kept at bay – but the scene also charged – by strong force fields of shame and prohibition. In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter darkened counsel with a little innuendo and shadow; attractively, Kildea and Powell are straightforward and easy about Britten’s boys. Britten certainly fell in love with Piers Dunkerley, Bobby Rothman, David Spenser and David Hemmings (the youngest of them, and the one whose relations with Britten were ‘nearly catastrophic’, according to Pears). But these were chaste relationships. Hemmings later said that ‘there was no sort of overt sexuality about it whatsoever. It was a very kind and loving and very gentle relationship.’ Kildea notes that of all the men interviewed by Humphrey Carpenter, ‘only Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy could relate an occasion when Britten overstepped the mark’:
He was in a towel following a bath at Crag House, when ‘Ben came up with an extremely soppy, sentimental look on his face, and put his arms round me, and kissed me on the top of the head. And I made the speech which I’d long prepared. I said: “No, Ben, it is not to be!”’ And nor was it … Gathorne-Hardy was 18 at the time.
Several of Britten’s operas circle around this dangerous territory: Peter Grimes, the fisherman accused of beating and murderously neglecting his boy apprentices; Vere and Claggart, differently in love with doomed Billy Budd; Aschenbach watching Tadzio. What is interesting about them is their apparently paradoxical but actually stereoscopic application of repression and sympathy. Peter Grimes mutes its homosexual resonances. ‘The more I hear of it, the more I feel that the queerness is unimportant & doesn’t really exist in the music,’ Pears decided in 1944. Doesn’t exist or mustn’t? Repression is then transferred into sympathy (sympathy for what precisely has been repressed, perhaps): Grimes is a more attractive character in the opera than he appears in Crabbe’s poem, the source text. Something similar animates Billy Budd and Death in Venice. Both operas work hard to replace actual same-sex desire with Platonised, Christian or otherwise slightly sexless versions of it (Vere’s chaste love for Billy replaces what Melville called Claggart’s ‘natural depravity’). And curiously, this very repression then effects a release: Vere’s relation to Billy is more tenderly realised than anything in Melville’s novella (‘But he has blessed me, and saved me, and the love which passes understanding has come to me,’ he sings, after Billy’s execution); Britten’s Aschenbach movingly intones: ‘Who really understands the workings of the creative mind? Nonetheless, this “I love you” must be accepted, ridiculous but sacred too and no, not dishonourable, even in these circumstances.’ Eros replaces sex. It is hard not to speculate that a similar mechanism of sexual repression and desexualised release was at the heart of Britten’s relations with unattainable teenagers.
These operas don’t merely enact repression, but dramatise it too; we see its operation. We grieve for repression itself (which is doubtless the repressed claim on our sympathies in both Melville and Mann’s works, but made more lucid in Britten’s operas, more urgent). We see repression as we should: ‘working’ and not working – at work. Something of this strange doubleness is musically embodied. There is the unease Leonard Bernstein talked about when he said that you can hear gears grinding in Britten’s work, ‘and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain’. It’s striking how many of Britten’s works rise towards declarations of apparent faith, with endings in major tonic chords. But these resolutions often function a little like the ‘happy’ ending which closes the Book of Job; they are contaminated closures, finales which cannot finalise, because disorder and dissonance have proved themselves uncontainable. This is perhaps true of Noye’s Fludde. It is certainly the atmosphere at the end of the Sinfonia da Requiem, despite the great, almost quelling beauty of the last movement. ‘Death be not Proud’, the last of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a ferocious song-cycle written in two weeks in 1945 in the shadow of Britten’s performances in German concentration camps, ends with the rousing line, ‘And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.’ The piano obligingly resolves into a triumphant B major chord, a weirdly hollow appeal after the abrasions we have undergone.
Alongside this, perhaps Britten’s fondest musical habit was what could be called the Quibble (along with the Seethe – repeated surging chords; the Walk – passacaglias and the like; and the Freeze – plainsong, organum and variants thereon). He liked to oscillate on a semitone (say F/F#), enjoying the way we tend to hear both notes at once, and how this often leaves a chord unresolved between major and minor keys. The third of the Holy Sonnets is essentially a prolonged quibble between B and C.Peter Grimes and Death in Venice employ a good deal of such oscillation; the most famous Sea Interlude theme from Grimes quibbles on E and F, while an A major-ish chord seethes beneath. This movement between tonal certainty and uncertainty seems to mimic and feed the thematic uneasiness of much of Britten’s work.
But there is of course both serenity and unease in his music. He is often serenely simple. He was drawn to stasis: he revivified plainsong, and made it into a new kind of frozen recitative. He referred to ‘the everlasting beauty of monotony’ in Mahler, and his own work has some of that monotonous beauty. At the end of the Violin Concerto, for instance, the orchestra holds a series of sustained chords (Britten’s version of the medieval organum effect, an early development of plainsong) while the violin, oscillating on semitone intervals (mainly F/F# and G/G#), seems to be trying, vainly, to fly away. There are moments in Britten’s work when music seems to want to dissolve, to vanish – rather in the way that Britten, as an ideal piano accompanist, sometimes seemed to have made himself disappear. Britten said of the Winterreise that it could be daunting to open the score: ‘There seems to be nothing on the page.’ The end of Death in Venice is such a disappearance, and also the last movement of the Third String Quartet (another of Britten’s passacaglia-like motifs). Much of his arrangement of English folk tunes has a tense discretion, which can seem flat on the page but magical in performance. In a filmed performance of ‘Waly, Waly’, Britten barely accompanies Pears, a repeated three-chord motif just nudging the tenor into voice.
The final song of his Hardy cycle, Winter Words (1953), ‘Before Life and After’, is Hardy’s lament for our exile from Eden, for our belatedness, for the fall that came with consciousness.A time there was, Hardy says, before
the birth of consciousness,
When all went well:
None suffered sickness, love or loss;
None knew regret,
Starved hope, or heartburnings.
The tenor part, gorgeously sung by Pears in a recording from 1954, curls and dips with the words. Britten, on the piano, seems hardly to exist, and his accompaniment matches the poem’s wistfulness: simple triadic chords in the left hand, and fleeting octaves in the right hand, which seem to follow just behind the soloist, in a mimicry of the hopeless belatedness that is the poem’s theme. The song ends with the repeated lament, ‘How long, how long?’, words themselves stretched into repetitive lengths by the song.
In the autumn of 1974, two years after his diagnosis of aortic incompetence, having entered what Kildea calls Der Abschied, Britten happened to hear Winter Words on the radio. Pears was away in New York, performing Death in Venice at the Met. But his voice sang out from the radio, and occasioned this extraordinary letter of gratitude:
My darling heart (perhaps an unfortunate phrase – but I can’t use any other) I feel I must write a squiggle which I couldn’t say on the telephone without bursting into those silly tears – I do love you so terribly, & not only glorious you, but your singing. I’ve just listened to a re-broadcast of Winter Words (something like Sept. ’72) and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was – every nuance, subtle & never overdone – those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sound you make, full but always coloured for words & music. What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? I had to switch off before the folk songs because I couldn’t [take] anything after – ‘how long, how long.’ How long? Only till Dec. 20th – I think I can just bear it
But I love you
I love you
I love you.
To which Pears replied, two days later:
No one has ever ever had a lovelier letter than the one which came from you today – You say things which turn my heart over with love and pride, and I love you for every single word you write. But you know, Love is blind – and what your dear eyes do not see is that it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning, from yourself in Grand Rapids! Through Grimes & Serenade & Michelangelo and Canticles – one thing after another, right up to this great Aschenbach – I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music – And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years.
My darling, I love you – P.