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…


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