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The Battle of Britten

1.

“Who is BEN-jam-in BRI-ttenBEN-jam-in BRI-tten?” sang the satirical English duo Flanders and Swann in 1953, setting the composer’s name to a plausibly Brittenesque 5/4 rhythm. Britten himself was turning forty and the country was recognizing, sometimes reluctantly, the scale of his success. The young man who had amazed postwar London with the opera Peter Grimes was now a household name—well known enough for Flanders and Swann’s mainstream audience to get jokes about him. For the Queen’s coronation, he had been commissioned to write an opera (Gloriana, which flopped spectacularly), and the Queen had made him a Companion of Honour.

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Britten-Pears Library, Aldeburgh
Benjamin Britten, right, with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, at the Old Mill, his house in Suffolk, England, circa 1943

At the same time, there was a hardening of battle lines between Britten’s supporters and detractors. A book published at the end of 1952 verged on propaganda, one critic declaring himself undecided whether Britten or Mozart was the greater composer. Such claims led to a backlash about “the cult of Britten.” Even the Flanders and Swann song, genial as it is, hints at something questionable about Britten’s career. He is a darling of “the county set” and has bolstered his position by cunning use of England’s musical heritage: “His work was soon in rehearsal/Because he always usèd Purcell.” They conclude, to the tune of “Rule Britannia,” that “while Britten rules the staves,/All the music-loving public are his slaves.”

Sixty years later, in Britten’s centennial year (he was born in 1913 and died in 1976), the “battle of Britten”—a phrase coined by the critic Ernest Newman, soon after the actual Battle of Britain—continues. Britten’s reputation—the need to decide once and for all whether he is great or overrated—is central to discussion of him, in a way that is not true for more acclaimed contemporaries (like Stravinsky) or lesser ones (like Finzi). A peevish, aggrieved tone persists on either side.

Britten’s middle-of-the-road idiom always drew criticism. It was too astringent for listeners brought up on English pastoralism and too conservative for avant-gardists. Virgil Thomson said that it was “easily recognizable as that considered by the British Broadcasting Corporation to be at once modernistic and safe.” Vaughan Williams, while Britten was still a student, judged his work “very clever but beastly,” and Britten never fully shook the reputation that his music was accomplished but confected.

Animosity was also fueled by extramusical factors. There was his homosexuality—never entirely public, but an open secret, given how much of his music was written for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. And there was his pacifism: many of his countrymen couldn’t forgive him and Pears for leaving England for America just before World War II. (They returned in 1942.)

Today, Britten’s antiwar convictions and sexuality are more likely to bring him praise than censure: the explicitly pacifist War Requiem is one of his most famous works and sexuality is now central to Britten studies. But in the meantime, other issues have arisen to make critics uneasy. Humphrey Carpenter’s authorized biography, now twenty years old, darkened the picture dramatically by focusing on the cliquish, who’s-in-who’s-out atmosphere that came to dominate the Aldeburgh Festival, which he founded in 1948, and on the composer’s lifelong interest in school-age boys.

Perhaps because Britten’s achievement is still up for debate, his centennial has seen considerable publishing activity,1 including an authoritative new biography by Paul Kildea and the last of six huge, exhaustively annotated volumes of Britten’s selected correspondence.

Kildea’s account improves on Carpenter’s in two notable ways—sketching in the social background of Britten’s career and offering a surer assessment of the music. Kildea, a conductor and arts administrator, is more confident than Carpenter in analyzing Britten’s compositional procedures and in discussing his successes and failures. He is particularly astute about the composer’s careerism—how much money he made year by year, his canny awareness of the power of recordings and of the BBC.

Britten was a natural, instinctive talent who produced exceptionally calculated music. He was a provincial, reluctant to leave the countryside where he had grown up, and yet far more musically cosmopolitan than his English contemporaries, maintaining important relationships with, among others, Serge Koussevitsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, Mstislav Rostropovich, Sviatoslav Richter, Francis Poulenc, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He rejected English traditions for international models, only to end up a bastion of Englishness and peer of the realm.

2.

According to family legend, Britten was destined to be a composer. His mother, an amateur singer, said that he would be the “fourth B” (after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) and made it her mission to see that he was. He was playing the piano at the age of four and soon scribbling vast quantities of juvenilia, drawing up meticulous catalogs of his rapidly growing oeuvre.2 This early activity was the root of his enviable ability to, as William Walton put it, “do it all in his head, like Mozart or Rossini.” Britten favored composing away from the piano, and he could orchestrate while holding a conversation and read a score as fluently as a book.

If music was Britten’s birthright, so too were the flat, gray world of coastal Suffolk—where he lived for all but about a decade of his life—and a certain kind of middle-class respectability. Britten was sent to good schools, excelling at sports, though he was forbidden to imperil his pianist’s fingers by catching a cricket ball. At the age of fourteen, he began taking lessons with the notable composer Frank Bridge. It was an ideal pairing. Bridge had moved away from the Edwardian pastoralism that had won him renown, toward an acerbic, modernist style, and he encouraged his pupil’s adventurousness. Bridge’s unworldly outlook, his pacifism, and his passion for culture of all kinds gave Britten his first sense of the artistic life.

Britten’s idolization of Bridge made him unreceptive to life at the Royal College of Music, where he was sent at sixteen. The institution was amateurish and conservative—it didn’t even own a score of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—and Britten’s teacher, the composer John Ireland, was out of sympathy with what he was trying to do. Britten wanted to go to Europe to study with Alban Berg—a fascinating what-if—but the college advised his mother against it. “I am going to study with Berg, aren’t I?” Britten later recalled asking. “No dear,” came the reply. “He’s not a good influence.”

As the exchange suggests, Britten, while musically sophisticated, was immature in other ways. But circumstances caused him to grow up quite fast. Both his parents died while he was in his early twenties, and life in London, where he found work composing for theater and film, brought him into contact with other young talents, including the ubiquitous 1930s troika of W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. Britten’s new companions were university men, articulate and politically strident, and he strove to keep up. Under Auden’s tutelage, he started expressing leftist opinions, sometimes grafted rather awkwardly onto his old schoolboyish ways. In his diaries he describes a pleasant evening playing Monopoly (then a new game) before deploring its capitalist underpinnings.

Many of Britten’s new friends were openly gay and quicker to realize his sexuality than he seems to have been. Getting Britten out of the closet was just as much a project as getting him culturally up to speed. “Have we convinced Ben he’s queer?” Isherwood was quoted as having said to a friend. In Kildea’s biography, more clearly than in Carpenter’s, Britten had a brief interlude as a more or less liberated gay man, flirting here, rejecting there, and maintaining at least one full relationship before the one with Peter Pears, who was a friend but not yet a lover.

Musically, the period instilled in Britten a pragmatic attitude toward art. Film music had to be timed to the second, and, as he recalled, “I had to work quickly, to force myself to work when I didn’t want to.” His concert music of the time demonstrates a scintillating technique and an effortless gift for absorbing diverse styles. In the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), the theme doesn’t really develop, but is instead dressed up in a variety of genres—Viennese waltz, classical bourrée, a fugue. There are flashes of Ravel, Shostakovich, even Vivaldi, but it’s not yet clear what Britten himself sounds like. Critics were harsh about this throughout the 1930s: “steely efficiency and heartless wit,” said one; “much play with technical devices, but little solid matter to justify the escapades,” said another.

Considering the antipathy to which Britten and Pears’s American sojourn later exposed them, their decision to leave, in 1938, was unmomentous. Pacifism didn’t initially even rank that high as a reason. (Indeed, Britten’s pacifism, though lifelong and fervent, was never very coherent: in the early years of the war he was critical of America’s reluctance to get involved in the fighting.) More pressing was Britten’s dissatisfaction with the reception of his works in England. Auden and Isherwood, recently emigrated, were encouraging about opportunities in America. Britten was anxious to escape a couple of romantic entanglements and Pears, falling for Britten, was eager to get him alone.

If Britten’s reasons for going to America seem diffuse, so too were his reasons for disliking it once there. He had success and failure in roughly equal proportion. His concerts with Pears were well received; Paul Bunyan, an operetta written with Auden, bombed. He enjoyed his time living with a family of cultured German immigrants in Amityville and hated his time living in a bohemian household in Brooklyn Heights with, among others, Auden, Carson McCullers, and Gypsy Rose Lee. A plan to write film music in Hollywood came to nothing, but the West Coast trip yielded something else: in a bookstore he came across a volume of the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe, including the story of Peter Grimes, a ruffian fisherman whose apprentices keep dying. He formed the twin ideas of returning to England and turning the Grimes story into an opera.

The music that Britten wrote in the decade after leaving America remains some of his most popular: the Ceremony of Carols and the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, Winter Words and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. They mark the arrival of his mature style, which is notably sparer than his music of the 1930s. Britten has a fondness for bitonality and for plain diatonic triads that behave in slightly undiatonic ways, floating around and refusing to cadence. The distinctive sound world often relies on juxtaposition of elements that are themselves simple and conventional. Richard Taruskin has described the result as “extraordinary presentations of material that is part of every listener’s ordinary musical experience.”

Such accessibility was a principal part of Britten’s aim, as was participation in a kind of Britishness that he had rejected only a few years before. The composer who, in 1941, wrote that English folksongs “seldom have any striking rhythms or memorable melodic features” went on to write nearly seventy folksong arrangements. Heather Wiebe’s astute new monograph Britten’s Unquiet Pasts shows how Britten’s patriotic project dovetailed both with a nostalgic turn in postwar English tastes and with the nation’s more forward-looking cultural enterprises, such as the Arts Council and the Festival of Britain. She is particularly shrewd about Gloriana, which failed because Britten wanted to have his heritage cake and eat it too. He was adamant that the opera had to be part of the official celebrations, but produced a dark, dramatically unsettling image of Elizabeth I, which involved some of his most spikily satiric music since the 1930s.

Frustration at dealing with existing institutions led Britten to set up, first, his own company, the English Opera Group, which could tour small-scale operas, and then his own festival, in Aldeburgh. Some thought that this retreat was a reaction to the failure of Gloriana, but there were other reasons, too. Kildea is extremely good on the homophobic atmosphere of the time. Male homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, and during the 1950s a public campaign against homosexuals was headed by the administrator and former tenor Sir Steuart Wilson, who opined, “The influence of perverts in the world of music has grown beyond all measure.”3 Several figures in the arts, including John Gielgud, were arrested for soliciting; Britten himself was interviewed by the police; a newspaper ran a helpful article on how to identify homosexuals.

Under the circumstances, Britten’s operas often sail close to the wind—the all-male world of Billy Budd, the intimations of child abuse in The Turn of the Screw. Britten’s odd mix of provocation and discretion has been central to considerations of him. Auden deplored “Ben’s lack of daring, his desire to be The Establishment…playing it safe, settling for amiability as guard against his queerity.” More recently, the late Philip Brett has turned this judgment on its head: “Britten’s artistic effort was an attempt to disrupt the centre that it occupied with the marginality that it expressed.” Kildea’s Britten is neither as spineless as Auden’s nor as radical as Brett’s, which seems about right. He was “a wolf in tweed clothing” who succeeded in making “mainstream works out of minority causes: pacifism, homosexuality, socialism.”

For the rest of Britten’s life, most of his works were written for the Aldeburgh Festival and reflected the venue and performers he had available. The pageant Noye’s Fludde, for instance, was written for a small ensemble of professionals padded out with a mass of amateurs and children. It is one of Britten’s most inspired works. There is no trace of condescension, and the challenge of writing for limited performers yields some of Britten’s most imaginative solutions. The least proficient violinists spend much of their time playing only open strings (G-D-A-E), but as the ark is built, Britten cunningly underlays those notes with a bass line that makes us hear the violin’s strings in an exotic F major laden with added sixths and sevenths. The dove in the story is delightfully impersonated by a flutter-tongued recorder. Other composers had used flutter-tonguing on a flute to imitate birds—Messiaen in Le merle noir and Britten himself in Paul Bunyan—but the effect on the recorder is much more evocative of a puffed-up dove’s throat. The underlying discipline is rock-solid: when the recorder proceeds to execute a little waltz, it does so over the same sustained chord (a D major seventh) that had represented Peter Grimes’s flight from the vengeful villagers of Aldeburgh.

In the 1960s, Britten winnowed his style still further, sometimes dispensing with harmony altogether, in favor of heterophony (variations of the same line sung simultaneously) or simple monody. Curlew River, a short musical drama that marked the debut of this style, was influenced by Noh plays Britten saw on a trip to Japan. Unlike Britten’s other uses of Asian music, such as Balinese gamelan effects in the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, his Noh-influenced music rarely sounds Orientalist. The Japanese model merely confirmed him in a direction he was already heading, and which found its ultimate expression in his final, most inward opera, Death in Venice.

3.

In a speech he delivered in 1964, Britten declared that he wrote not for posterity but for the people around him, taking into account the nature of their voices or instruments. He was indeed happiest when projects gave him very specific problems to solve, as with Noye’s Fludde. But though the speech casts this preference as a matter of principle, it seems possible that it also reflects some insecurity. Kildea notes that the very few times that Britten experienced creative blocks were when contemplating a large orchestral work—a medium in which there are few limitations other than that of the composer’s imagination.

Sometimes the problems Britten set himself were compositional. The fugue of the second cello suite is a good example. Fugues tend to be ungainly on a cello, requiring lots of double- and triple-stopping, but Britten ingeniously contrives a three-part fugue in which the cellist never needs to play more than one note at a time. However, this feat is achieved by means of a fugal subject devoid of character—mostly rests, with a few eccentrically spaced notes. From this unappealing premise, Britten creates amazing effects, with harmonics pealing bell-like down the instrument. But ultimately, his skill has made him indifferent to the quality of his underlying material. Kildea calls him “a melodic Rumpelstiltskin, spinning gold from straw.”

At such moments of melodic asceticism, it’s possible to feel that Britten overlearned the lessons read him by early reviewers, who accused him of meretricious facility. Only occasionally do we hear the inventive verve and infectious delight of his youth. In Albert Herring—Britten’s most underrated opera, and his only comic one—Albert is a young man completely under his mother’s thumb who is renowned for his virtue as a result. In the town’s May Day celebration he is crowned king of the May (none of the young women are chaste enough to be queen) but he gets drunk during the festivities and goes on a monumental debauch. Critics have pointed out a resemblance between Albert and Britten’s younger self, both controlled by overbearing mothers.

Far more interesting is the fact that Albert’s liberation entails a musical liberation for Britten. For once, neither hero nor composer is on his best behavior, and the results are spectacular. It is not just a matter of comic effects. The characters Sid and Nancy have the only successful love music in Britten’s operas—far more visceral than the pasteboard passions of the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and their kiss is sealed with an astonishing, tumescent glissando accelerando in the strings. At the culmination of the opera, Albert—presumed dead, though actually just very drunk—is mourned by the other characters in a bluesy nine-part threnody. It pulls off the rarest trick of comic opera: to make us feel pathos even when we know that a comic resolution is just around the corner.

Britten’s success in this relatively light work draws attention to a feature of his grand operas: it is often not their grandest moments that are the most effective. In Billy Budd, the villain Claggart is strangely undermotivated, perhaps because Britten and his librettist, E.M. Forster, were cautious about allowing homoeroticism to become too flagrant. With a charismatic enough performer, the long aria, in which Claggart describes his urge to destroy the beautiful Budd, can succeed, but Britten seems to have seen little more than “an opportunity for writing nice dark music,” and passively follows the Verdian model of the evil bass aria.

Compared to this, smaller moments in the opera are masterly. Early on, a brooding Captain Vere invites two of his officers for a glass of wine. From perturbed harmonies, his toast—“The King”—rises a tritone to an F-sharp that the officers, replying in kind, harmonize in a robust D major. As the men drink, a strange harp arpeggio (D major with impurities) evanesces upward, and we feel the drink take hold and the mood relax. A few minutes later, Vere proposes another toast—to the destruction of the French navy. This time his F-sharp is harmonized in B minor, a key associated with evil throughout the opera.

Britten’s accomplishment as an opera composer—no other postwar composer has so many works securely in the repertory—consists of hundreds of moments like this, while larger elements, like Claggart’s aria, often seem irresolute and ambiguous. Is Grimes a sadist or a persecuted dreamer? Does Lucretia secretly desire her rapist? Perhaps the most perfect of Britten’s operas is The Turn of the Screw, where a miasma of Jamesian ambiguity only heightens the sinister allure. This quirk of Britten’s—his excellence in small things and vulnerability in large ones—points us toward what is surely the central contradiction of his career: his aims as a composer were in conflict with the nature of his talent. His ambition often pulled him in the direction of big commissions and public forms, but his actual voice is a quiet one.

What did Britten think about his works? “I must get a better composer some how—but how?” he wrote to Pears in 1964, but he wasn’t specific about what the deficiencies might be. The volumes of letters don’t provide many clues. Sometimes he’ll refer to “one bit which I don’t think I’ve got quite right yet,” but there is little insight into what was bothering him.

Very occasionally, however, we find him addressing a musical equal about the difficulties that lie at the heart of composition. In the early 1960s, Otto Klemperer sent Britten his second symphony for comment. Britten is polite but pitilessly specific on the weaknesses—unidiomatic writing (“poor violas!”), redundancies in scoring. He also makes a remarkable observation. He praises Klemperer’s ideas, but ventures, “I am not always so sure that the notes you have chosen are always the exactly right ones to express what is so clearly in your mind.” He goes on: “This is not a cheeky point, but a profound one, which troubles me persistently as a composer—the business of finding exactly the right notes!”

This theme appears again and again. After the failure of Gloriana, he writes that the audience confused “the fewness of the notes…with thinness of invention.” In 1975, as his heart gradually gave out—he died in December the following year—he told a colleague that he’d made progress on his third string quartet: “Only 3 notes, but good ones.”

This extreme fastidiousness is at the heart of Britten’s musical language. Mistrusting early facility, he makes almost every note into a choice. In that sense listeners who find Britten’s work thin are responding to the same quality as those who admire its simplicity and directness. The music at its best attains a kind of transcendent sparseness, a shimmer of gray seascapes, withdrawal, and loneliness. Recombining ordinary materials in extraordinary ways, Britten occasionally arrived at something inward, faltering, and strange. It is the sound of the strangeness that lies at the heart of the familiar.

Letters

Britten’s Escape October 24, 2013

  1. 1

    In addition to the works discussed here, there is Britten’s Century, a symposium edited by Mark Bostridge (Bloomsbury, 2013); The Essential Britten, a genial beginners’ guide by John Bridcut (Faber and Faber, 2012); and Neil Powell’s Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music (Holt, 2013), a chatty, besotted biography by a writer so devoted to Britten’s music that he actually moved to Aldeburgh. 

  2. 2

    Much of the music that Britten was writing in his early teens, such as a set of Chopinesque piano waltzes, has been published and performed since his death. Quatre Chansons Françaises, written at fourteen, ventriloquize French impressionism to stunning effect. A Hymn to the Virgin, from the next year and published in Britten’s lifetime, foreshadows his mature style and has entered the choral repertoire. It was sung at Britten’s funeral. 

  3. 3

    This guardian of British morals was violent toward his wife, who left him and later married the conductor Sir Adrian Boult. In his day, Wilson had been a fine tenor, and Pears cited him as an influence on his own vocal development. 

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