Sunday Times, 27 January 2013
Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century by Paul Kildea
Allen Lane £30/ebook £14.99 pp688, ST Bookshop price £24
Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by Neil Powell
Hutchinson £25/ebook £26.09 pp512, ST Bookshop price £20
Just after the end of the Second World War when a bus stopped on London’s Rosebery Avenue, the conductor would cry, “Sadler’s Wells. Any more for Peter Grimes, the sadistic fisherman?”
Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera was big news in those days. His sea-bound tale of madness and murder was a curious way to mark the end of hostilities, but a famous one, in part because it was controversial, but also because Britten’s celebrity was enough to project opera on to the front pages. He was Britain’s Mr Music, widely regarded, in this country at least, as the finest living composer and the greatest English composer since the death of Purcell in 1695.
Equally, however, there was a fog of suspicion that, sadly, still hangs about his name. The charge sheet is long. He was a coward: with his lover Peter Pears, he fled to America just before the start of the war; he was part of a gay mafia; he exploited royal connections; and, most damning of all, he was a paedophile, pursuing sex with a long list of young boys. The first of these is somewhat unfair (he came back), the second is wrong (he assiduously avoided any “gay scene”), as is the third — he damaged his own royal connections when his opera Gloriana upset the Queen.
The fourth, according to these two books, though not some previous ones, is also wrong. He did, indeed, have relationships with many boys, including the actor David Hemmings, but, though wildly ill-judged and often involving a shared bed, they were nonsexual. He loved to play the part of mother to a certain kind of boy, rather as Pears played mother to him. This may seem creepy, but those were different times.
Pears, however, was not so fastidious. The shocking revelation in Paul Kildea’s book is that heart surgery in 1973 revealed that Britten’s aorta was “riddled with tertiary syphilis”, a disease that would have explained some of the multiple illnesses he suffered over the years. Kildea says Pears was almost certainly the source of infection, having remained symptomless. He was promiscuous, playing around “on wet, windy Sundays in dreary hotels around the world”, but whether this was before they became lovers in 1939 or after is unclear. The eyes of posterity, though, will be blind to these matters. All that will ultimately matter is Britten’s music. The story of the life will survive only in so far as it casts light on the scores. That is the course that both of these admirable books pursue. They are published to mark this year’s centenary of Britten’s birth; he died in 1976.
The eyes of posterity, though, will be blind to these matters. All that will ultimately matter is Britten’s music. The story of the life will survive only in so far as it casts light on the scores
Parochialism is, perhaps, the issue. To say Britten is the best since Purcell is to acknowledge that we as a nation did not keep up when Europe had Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and so on. In other words, saying he is the best of British is to set the bar low. In addition, there was his self-conscious parochialism. This, along with his musical style, “went against the grain of the post-war era”, says the music critic Alex Ross. Throughout his life, Britten pursued cosy nests where he was looked after and that, in essence, accounts for his foundation of the Aldeburgh festival, still among the best of its kind in the world. He nested on the Suffolk coast after returning from America in 1942. He had, indeed, fled the war (a move he justified on the basis of a spoilt-brat pacifism that refused to engage with counter-arguments), but he missed Britain and disliked America too much.
But artists of unarguable genius — primarily WH Auden — always knew he was one of them. They spotted in him the flame they shared. It was precisely this sense of his greatness that infuriated Auden when Britten returned to this country. In an angry but psychologically profound letter, he tore off the Britten mask as a threat to his art. “You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself…by playing the lovable talented little boy.” Britten seems to have taken this letter quite well. A later one, in which Auden explained what was wrong with Gloriana, he ripped up and returned to sender.
This was all very harsh. Britten was too sexually timid to follow the debaucheries pressed on him by Auden and Isherwood and no wonder. He was raped by a schoolmaster and he was not a law-breaker — homosexual acts were illegal for most of his life. In addition, his upbringing would have convinced him of the value of cosy. His father was not musical but his mother was, and detected she was in charge of a prodigy. By the time he got to Gresham’s School in Norfolk (Auden was also there) he was known as almost a dangerous modernist, the boy who raised eyebrows by liking Stravinsky. He was indeed a modernist — admittedly, a soft one — with roots as international as they were local. His masters were Berg and Mahler and, though they disliked each other intensely, he understood the stature of Stravinsky.
After school, the story becomes a list of remarkable achievements. There were the operas, of course, and great church music such as Rejoice in the Lamb, formidable vocal writing such as the Canticles and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, parables such as Curlew River and The Prodigal Son and a fine series of strong quartets as well as the cello sonata that sprang out of his friendship with Rostropovich. This is all combined with a touching love story — his relationship with Pears grows more devoted with the passing of time, despite the latter’s promiscuity.
He was indeed a modernist — admittedly, a soft one — with roots as international as they were local. His masters were Berg and Mahler and, though they disliked each other intensely, he understood the stature of Stravinsky
With Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, Britten made opera a British art, and countless other works made it possible to hold up our musical heads after three centuries of under-achievement. How high we can hold them remains a matter of dispute; for me he has never quite stood alongside the best of his time.
Kildea is a conductor, and his book is much longer and involves far more (and better) close musical analysis. It feels definitive. Neil Powell is a poet, and it shows; the writing is more fluent, the tone more intimate and psychologically adept. Those who are musically informed should go for the former; aspirants should go for the latter as an introduction. Both do an exceptional job of bringing this strange, neurotic and evasive man to life. He was, it seems, charming and shy but capable of being, especially in later life according to Kildea, callous and ruthless. Kildea quotes a series of crushing remarks to performers, notably “You’d better stay, we’ve tried everybody else and no one is free,” to the pianist Viola Tunnard who was suffering from motor neurone disease.
It is a good year to be thinking about Britten, not only because he would have been 100, but also because EU politics is forcing us to dwell on the meaning of our national taste for the parochial and whether it can withstand the demands of the outside world. It is a year, as Auden advised, to “Look, stranger, on this island now”, and to listen to its music.