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
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