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Remembering Benjamin Britten:
November 22, 1913–December 4, 1976

Benjamin-Britten-stamp_4821,565 words

Benjamin Britten, the English composer, conductor, and pianist and the founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, was born 100 years ago today in the Suffolk fishing port of Lowestoft.

Britten’s father was a dentist, who provided his four children with a middle-class upbringing and education. His mother came from a musical family. Young Benjamin was a musical prodigy, who composed 534 works by the end of 1927, just after his 14th birthday. Some themes from these juvenile works found their way into his mature compositions. Britten studied at the Royal College of Music in London and with the composer Frank Bridge.

Britten’s first mature works were performed when he was 19. Along with his gifts as a composer, Britten was a first-rate conductor and pianist. He was hard-working, highly disciplined, and capable of composing at blinding speed. He enjoyed immediate and steady success, which brought him fame and fortune and entrance into the highest circles of the international classical music community and the British establishment, including the royal family. He published 95 works before his death of heart failure in 1976 at the age of 63.

This is also the bicentennial year of Richard Wagner (May 22) and Giuseppe Verdi (October 9), and although Britten is not in their league as a composer, one would not know it from the remarkable outpouring of commemorations by orchestras and record companies around the world, efforts which often exceed the Wagner and Verdi bicentennials. Two major biographies of Britten have also been published: Neil Powell’s Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music and Paul Kildea’s Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. (I highly recommend Powell’s book. I doubt that I will read Kildea’s, which is almost 200 pages longer.)

One explanation for the hoopla might be mere political correctness, for Britten was a pacifist and a homosexual with fairly conventional Left-wing political sympathies.

Even so, Britten must be rather disappointing to today’s Left, for he detested the “gay” scene and lived discreetly with one man his whole life (tenor Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote many of his most important works). Furthermore, even today’s gay rights advocates are probably discomfited by W. H. Auden’s accusation that there was a sexual element to Britten’s friendships with teenaged boys. Britten denied the charge and angrily broke off his friendship with Auden over it. Neill Powell also hotly disputes it. Still, one can blame Britten for not avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

As a principled pacifist, moreover, Britten did not cheer on any of the Left’s crusades. He and Pears were both conscientious objectors during World War II. (And from a New Right point of view, the world would be a much better place if Britten’s pacifism had become Britain’s as a whole.)

Beyond that, while Britten’s Leftish political convictions seem conventional and tepid, his deep convictions about art and culture were folkish and conservative. Britten’s music is tonal and tuneful, but unmistakably a product of the 20th century. Still, he was out of step with most 20th-century composers, except for Shostakovich, with whom he was friends. Powell sums up his attitude nicely:

. . . Auden and Stravinsky [librettist and composer of The Rake’s Progress] had come to represent everything that Britten most detested and feared in the arts. Auden was clever and brilliant, but heartless and deracinated. Stravinsky wrote music of incomparable quality, yet seemed to say nothing. Britten was a composer of music with content, rooted in a particular place and in his own troubled humanity. (p. 315)

Britten was rooted not just in English culture but in coastal Suffolk. (Suffolk is the southern half of the easternmost bulge of England, located to the north and east of London.) Britten traveled the world, but he always returned to Suffolk. He disliked city life and loved nature and the seacoast. (He also loved animals and despised cruelty and blood sports.) In 1948, Britten created the internationally renowned Aldeburgh Music and Arts Festival, which takes place each June, and which focuses primarily upon classical music.

I first heard Britten as a child, when I was given an lp of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (variations on a theme of Henry Purcell — my first introduction to him too), paired Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (narrated by David Bowie! — also my first introduction). Both works are imaginative introductions to the instruments of the orchestra. (Britten had an admirable commitment to musical education and wrote a number of pieces suitable for student and amateur ensembles.)

Next, I fell in love with the Chandos recording of the Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes paired with sea-themed works by Arnold Bax the great Frank Bridge, whose The Sea is the best thing on the disc.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, when I was working on my MA thesis and my Doctoral dissertation, I spent a great deal of time listening to Britten, very closely, on headphones. In the pre-internet days, frustrated by the fact that many of his recordings were not distributed in the United States, I began phoning Tower Records in London and ordering them with a credit card. (Of the 61 CDs recently released in Britten’s Complete Works, I have 40 of them.)

I was drawn to Britten by the beauty and craftsmanship of his music, as well as by the quality of the texts that he set, for the vast bulk of Britten’s work is for the human voice. I was also looking for operas in English. After a while, though, I cooled on Britten. For there is a strand of coldness and emotional repression running through his music. I remember that when I listened to Puccini again, I felt like a man stumbling out of a desert into a verdant oasis. I had not listened to Britten for more than a decade, until his centennial led me revisit his works.

There is a good deal of hype and hyperbole connected with the Britten centennial. He is, for instance, being hailed as the greatest British composer since Purcell, and one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Neither field is particularly crowded, but I cannot agree. He cannot be ranked above Elgar or Vaughan Williams. Nor can he be ranked alongside Mahler or Richard Strauss or Shostakovich.

Britten’s purely instrumental music is a mixed lot: the Four Sea Interludes, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and Sinfonia da Requiem are the best. But his concertos and concertante works are uniformly disappointing. Britten also composed very little chamber music, the best of it being his three String Quartets.

Britten’s greatest gift was composing for the human voice, for which he created a number of indisputable masterpieces.

First, I recommend the War Requiem, which combines the Latin Requiem mass with the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in the First World War.

Second, I recommend Britten’s song cycles and settings, particularly the Serenade, Les Illuminations, and Nocturne, with texts by Hugo, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Charles Cotton, Tennyson, Blake, Ben Johnson, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Owen, and Shakespeare; Our Hunting Fathers, a youthful work, crackling with excitement, with words by W. H. Auden; Songs and Proverbs of William Blake; The Holy Sonnets of John Donne; Six Hölderlin Fragments; Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo; and Phaedra

Third, there is Britten’s extensive body of church music, a good introduction to which is an anthology of A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, Missa Brevis, Te Deum, and Jubilate.

Finally, there are his ten operas, two of which are masterpieces of the highest order: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. Britten’s other operas have their virtues as well. But when one reflects on the uniformly high quality of Britten’s stories and libretti — Paul Bunyan (Auden), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare), The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave (Henry James), Death in Venice (Thomas Mann), Billy Budd (Melville adapted by E. M. Forster) — Britten the composer starts looking like an emotionally repressed underachiever; a composer who forgot the elementary fact of opera, namely that the magic of music can sell even the weakest dramas, a composer who foolishly subordinated himself to the texts and who ended up writing some exquisite soundtrack music that never threatens to overwhelm the words — or draw us into the inner worlds of the characters. As good — and sometimes great — as these works are, I can’t help feeling they could have been, and should have been, so much better.

Britten’s achievements as a conductor and pianist are also being celebrated by Decca with a set of his complete recordings on 27 discs, featuring superb performances of Bach, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart (including an electrifying Piano Concerto no. 20 with Clifford Curzon), Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Bridge, and many others. At a bit more than $2 per disc, these are tremendous bargains, particularly if you lack other recordings of this basic repertoire.

Britten’s centennial really should be celebrated. Although Leftist identity politics might have greased the skids, the real momentum behind it is simply the love of Britten’s music and the desire to celebrate a composer who believed in beauty and good craftsmanship, a composer who loved and respected his homeland (without lapsing into jingoism), who mixed with all levels of society, who drew inspiration from his countrymen, and who addressed his works back to them, writing music that can be enjoyed by people of all levels of education and discernment. These qualities are quite rare in 20th-century music. They are a legacy worth celebrating.


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  1. Posted November 22, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia says: “Britten was attracted to young boys – what Auden called ‘thin-as-a-board juveniles – sexless and innocent’.”

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted November 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Britten certainly denied it. Indeed, he was so incensed about Auden’s accusations/insinuations that he ended their friendship over them. His biographer Neill Powell argues that it did not fit Britten’s character, inasmuch as he hated the bullying, beatings, and buggery that were part of British public school life. He was outraged by the violation of innocence. Those attitudes are clear from such operas as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.

      Still, reading about the whole controversy creeps me out, and I can’t imagine it has helped with the promotion of Britten as some sort of gay icon.

      • Jaego
        Posted November 24, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

        Public schools? I thought the whole fagging system was in the private upper class boarding schools.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted November 24, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

          In England “public schools” are private schools.

      • bill
        Posted November 24, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        “Britten certainly denied it. Indeed, he was so incensed about Auden’s accusations/insinuations that he ended their friendship over them. His biographer Neill Powell argues that it did not fit Britten’s character, inasmuch as he hated the bullying, beatings, and buggery that were part of British public school life. He was outraged by the violation of innocence. Those attitudes are clear from such operas as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.

        Still, reading about the whole controversy creeps me out, and I can’t imagine it has helped with the promotion of Britten as some sort of gay icon.”

        I didn’t know Britten denied it; is there a source for this?

        As for the promotion of a gay icon, the mainstream opera companies (owned and operated by left wing lunatics) are having a field day spreading their BS propaganda about him being gay and how “advanced” his music was; because he “was clarifying the text through the music,” as if there were no other British composers that ALREADY did the same thing.

        See what MSM opera companies are saying about Britten:

        What do you think, Greg?

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted November 24, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          See Neill Powell’s biography. Auden, of course, was a homosexual and a friend of Britten. Britten despised the gay, urban, bohemian, libertine life that Auden kept pressing upon him. Britten was apparently inclined toward monogamy. He like the countryside and seashore, not city life and smoke-filled bars. Britten also liked to play sports. When one is in one’s 20s and 30s, the age difference does not matter if one plays tennis with a teenager. But Auden twisted this into an accusation of pederasty. Britten was disgusted and ended their friendship.

          It was the accusation of a venomous queen, written in a private letter, rather than stated publicly, where there could be consequences for falsehood. Nevertheless, Powell examines the issue carefully, including the reports of various young men with whom Britten associated, and concludes there is probably nothing to it.

          But one can still blame Britten for not avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. Of course, one has to ask: would one have preferred that he not have written A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra or The Little Sweep or not cast children in The Turn of the Screw as well? After all, venomous people can say anything, can’t they?

      • reiner arischer Tor
        Posted November 25, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

        I read about it in Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise (BTW is Alex Ross J-wish? I couldn’t find out), and it seems to me that although it’s not impossible that Britten was sexually attracted to young men, he definitely didn’t act on this. (I don’t find the one exception when a young man accused him plausible.) As long as he didn’t harm any of the boys he was associated with, I don’t think it’s our business to speculate on the whole topic – it’s his private matter what was inside his head.

        As you might remember I buy into the pathogen theory of gayness (since only 20% of men with a gay identical twin are gay themselves, and since it really is innate in the sense they just are that way and it cannot really be changed in any way, I can find no other logical conclusion), but that only makes gays similar to polio victims – still members of the race, and we can still be proud of their achievements.

        Off topic – I can see you consider Shostakovich a great composer. What is your proposal for a recording of his symphonies? What other works of his are worth listening to? I only heard his Chamber Symphony (originally written I think as a string quartet), which I didn’t like much (but maybe I should give it another try later), but I’m sure there are many other works worth listening to. Are you planning to write about him later?

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted November 25, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          My recommendations for Shostakovich are:

          Symphony no. 5 (get Jarvi or Bernstein)
          Symphony no. 10 (Jarvi or Karajan)
          Symphony no. 7 (Jarvi)
          Symphony no. 12
          Cello Concerto no. 1 (Yo Yo Ma or Daniel Muller-Schott)
          Plus any of his film music, ballet, “jazz,” orchestral suites, and potboilers, which are delightful.

          I don’t like his operas at all.

          His chamber music is also very good, but an acquired taste and depressing in large doses.

          His best music was written under Stalin’s anti-modernist, anti-cosmopolitan strictures. Compare the 4th symphony with the 5th to see the positive benefits of Stalin’s cultural program.

          In the post-Stalinist thaw, Shostakovich’s music became dry, depressive, self-indulgent, and hermetic. The best of that music is the Cello Concerto no. 2 and his final Symphony, no. 15. The worst of it, in my view, is Symphony no. 14.

  2. Petronius
    Posted November 22, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    The Derek Jarman film of “War Requiem” is quite good as well, it made think of Death in June all the time.

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