THE CEN­TE­NARY OF BEN­JAMIN BRIT­TEN

His stock has never been higher, but Ben­jamin Brit­ten is still of­ten seen as dif­fi­cult. This cen­te­nary year will change that, writes Ru­pert Chris­tiansen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

THERE will be no evad­ing Ben­jamin Brit­ten in the com­ing months. Thirty-seven years af­ter his death in 1976, a man widely la­belled as

‘‘ the great­est English com­poser since Pur­cell’’ has his cen­te­nary marked world­wide not only by a tor­rent of con­certs and opera pro­duc­tions but also by the pub­li­ca­tion of two new bi­ogra­phies, Brit­ten fes­ti­vals in Moscow and Dus­sel­dorf, sig­nif­i­cant premieres of his works in Brazil, Chile, the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, New Zealand and China, and per­for­mances across Aus­tralia.

Who was this man and why does his mu­sic con­tinue to ex­ert such an ex­tra­or­di­nary hold? In his re­cent play The Habit of Art, Alan Ben­nett presents him as an ef­fete and in­de­ci­sive fig­ure — some­one a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion would have la­belled ‘‘ pan­si­fied’’ — but this could scarcely be more mis­lead­ing.

Brit­ten was ho­mo­sex­ual, but in all ex­ter­nal re­spects he com­ported him­self like a re­spectable tweedy mid­dle-class bach­e­lor of a lib­eral per­sua­sion. Aside from his stub­born but un­doc­tri­naire paci­fism, he was con­ven­tional in his habits, man­ners and dress. Com­pet­i­tive and ath­letic, he was head boy and vic­tor lu­do­rum at school. He drove fast cars fast, played a mean game of ten­nis and en­joyed freez­ing sea­wa­ter dips and hearty roast lunches.

In his pro­fes­sional deal­ings, he could be ruth­less — ‘‘ Brit­ten’s corpses’’ are what they called those whom he cold shoul­dered. The ex­ci­sions were un­pleas­ant, but of­ten nec­es­sary: like any suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, he had no time for slack­ers or sec­ond-raters. The mu­sic came first and he could as­so­ciate only with peo­ple who would serve it well.

Off duty, how­ever, he could be warm, gen­er­ous and good-hu­moured, con­tent to lead a quiet daily life out of the metropoli­tan lime­light in his beloved na­tive Suf­folk. His emo­tional fo­cus was a loving if oc­ca­sion­ally scratchy mar­riage to tenor Peter Pears, for whom he wrote much of his great­est mu­sic, but his life was also marked by a se­ries of in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships with pubescent boys.

This has caused much anx­i­ety among his ad­mir­ers and de­trac­tors but, as a sen­si­tive study of the mat­ter by John Brid­cut re­vealed re­cently, th­ese re­la­tion­ships were pseu­dopa­ter­nal and in­volved no gen­i­tal con­tact. It seems rather that in some re­spects Brit­ten re­mained a prep-school boy him­self and that his fond­ness for other prep-school boys was what mod­ern jar­gon de­scribes as ‘‘ be­ing in touch with your in­ner child’’.

A mys­te­ri­ous and con­vo­luted per­son­al­ity, then, de­scribed by his peer Michael Tip­pett as

‘‘ the most purely mu­si­cal per­son I have ever met’’, and a strangely elu­sive com­poser too, whose work fits no stylis­tic pi­geon­hole. Nei­ther ro­man­tic, clas­si­cist nor mod­ernist, nei­ther rev­o­lu­tion­ary nor re­ac­tionary, Brit­ten ploughed his own fur­row and left a uniquely rich and still in­flu­en­tial legacy.

His mu­si­cal lan­guage is some­times un­in­hib­it­edly ac­ces­si­ble ( The Young Per­son’s Guide

to the Orches­tra, Noye’s Fludde) and some

times bleakly aus­tere ( Death in Venice). Never al­to­gether com­fort­able with big sym­phony or­ches­tras or grand opera houses, he pre­ferred the col­le­gial­ity of the more in­ti­mate and flex­i­ble cir­cum­stances he de­vel­oped in Alde­burgh or com­mis­sions that took him out­side the es­tab­lish­ment — early in his ca­reer he wrote film scores, late in his ca­reer he wrote op­eras for church and tele­vi­sion. He was ready to make his mu­sic so­cially use­ful, and was as in­spired by the chal­lenge of mak­ing mu­sic for am­a­teurs and chil­dren as he was by the tal­ents of Mstislav Rostropovich and Janet Baker. He was also a mag­i­cally won­der­ful pi­anist and on oc­ca­sion a su­perb con­duc­tor — ac­com­plish­ments glow­ingly ev­i­dent on his clas­sic stereo record­ings for Decca.

Dur­ing the past cen­tury, Brit­ten’s rep­u­ta­tion has passed through sev­eral phases. To­day it prob­a­bly stands higher than ever.

But it has been a long jour­ney. Dur­ing his life­time, Brit­ten was al­ways rat­tling one fac­tion or an­other. In his youth in the 1930s, when Bri­tish taste was rooted firmly in the Ger­manic tra­di­tion, he was re­garded by the som­no­lent top brass as a peskily bril­liant wun­derkind and imp­ish rebel. Vic­to­ri­ans and Ed­war­dians such as Wag­ner, Brahms, Si­belius and El­gar were of lit­tle in­ter­est to him; his work seemed to grow out of 20th-cen­tury Stravin­sky and 17th-cen­tury Pur­cell, with an ex­hil­a­rat­ing bravado and en­ergy of its own. Whose side was he on?

An­other di­men­sion ac­crued to that ques­tion when Brit­ten left Eng­land in 1938 for the US in search of a freer mu­si­cal cul­ture. When war broke out and, like his ho­mo­sex­ual friends and con­tem­po­raries WH Au­den and Christopher Ish­er­wood, he de­cided to re­main in his Amer­i­can haven, his name was mud among the pa­tri­otic.

Over­come by home­sick­ness, Brit­ten did re­turn in 1942, how­ever, and was granted con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor sta­tus. But the scoffers were si­lenced only a few weeks af­ter V-E Day, when he pre­miered Peter Grimes, his first ma­jor op­er­atic mas­ter­piece and an over­whelm­ingly pow­er­ful moral state­ment about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween so­ci­ety and the out­sider that caught the national mood and el­e­vated his stand­ing to the point at which

Ben­jamin Brit­ten at the beach at Alde­burgh, Suf­folk, in 1951; above right, con­duct­ing a few months be­fore his death in 1976

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