Review: Paul Stanhopeon Benjamin Britten

Brittle and brilliant: Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

The centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is being celebrated this year with  publications, major performances (mainly in the UK and Europe; the response in Australia has been muted) and a new-found appreciation for the composer who is often said to be the most significant British musical voice since Henry Purcell. A new and comprehensive biography by Australian-born Britten scholar, administrator and conductor, Paul Kildea, is a worthy addition to the already significant pile of biographies and scholarly tomes on the composer. And it comes with a new controversy. Kildea postulates that Britten died from tertiary-stage syphilis, rather than the heart condition that plagued  him during the last years of his life. Unfortunately, this sensational claim unravelled within days of the publication of an excerpt from the biography in London’s Daily Telegraph. Two of the doctors who were present at the operation in which Britten’s aortic valve was replaced and syphilis was supposedly discovered in the heart have publicly disputed Kildea’s version of events. It seems a shame that Kildea ran with this theory (which has long been rumoured) without testing the evidence more thoroughly, especially given the wonderful erudition and painstaking research in evidence in much of the rest of the biography.

So what can this new biography bring to Britten scholarship? The subtitle – ‘A Life in the Twentieth Century’ – provides the framework. The book places Britten’s life and artistic choices within their socio-political and historical context. For the most part, Kildea succeeds in this admirably, avoiding the temptation to make this pure hagiography, but at the same time balancing out some of the more outrageous allegations that have been made about his subject (the syphilis controversy being the exception). This is especially the case with regard to revelations in recent years about Britten’s taste for pretty young boys. Humphrey Carpenter’s 1992 biography lifted the lid on many of the encounters between the composer and the young men and boys he favoured. Kildea goes to some trouble to show that Carpenter’s main source – the embittered former librettist and colleague of Britten, Eric Crozier – over-egged many of these stories. It seems, in the end, that Britten’s encounters with young boys were sometimes disturbing, but ultimately chaste. Kildea perhaps goes too far in excusing Britten’s behaviour in the light of modern standards of child protection, but he does a decent job of untangling rumour from factual account, even if this aspect of Britten’s life remains somewhat clouded in controversy.  Perhaps Kildea did not feel he needed to deal with this subject at greater length because it is covered in detail in John Bridcut’s book, Britten’s Children (2006).

Kildea begins with a brilliant essay that highlights many of the themes of Britten’s life – both as an artist and as an individual – including the many contradictions of his personality. The composer was born into a middle-class Norfolk family, the son of a dentist, and he benefitted from the flattering attention of his mother and some surprisingly good choices of musical tutors. He also benefitted from posh schools (not all of which were to his liking) and – perhaps the great defining stroke of his early life – tutelage under the masterful composer, Frank Bridge. An unfortunately overlooked composer these days, Bridge was an astute and demanding teacher whose influence helped guide the promising young composer on a course toward success. Kildea’s painstaking research into the early stages of Britten’s life and compositional output, helped by the fact that Britten kept and later reworked so much of his juvenilia, is an impressive achievement and perhaps the greatest single contribution to Britten scholarship in this publication.

Britten acknowledged the profound influence of his former teacher by composing the brilliant string orchestra work Variations of a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) – the piece that first brought his music to the attention of the press and to the public at large. The relationship soured, unfortunately, when Britten had even greater success performing the solo part in his own Piano Concerto (1938) – a work for which Bridge showed clear disdain.  Britten later saw some of the same problems with this piece and re-wrote the final movement some years later.

At the time, however, he was dreadfully thin-skinned about the criticism he received. This tendency continued throughout his life and Kildea unlocks many of the complexities of the relationship between artist and critic. The reaction of the press to Britten’s music in the 1930s was peculiarly hostile. They savaged him, noting his technical mastery, but typecasting him as ‘clever’ and somehow lacking in depth. Britten struggled for years to escape this often unfair characterisation. Decades later, upon the completion of the War Requiem (1962), critics went too far in the opposite direction, declaring the new work a ‘masterpiece’ having only glimpsed a copy of the score. Neither extreme was useful and both played into Britten’s capacity to be glass-jawed and dismissive of criticism, even when reviewers offered up insightful and balanced views.

Kildea brings alive Britten’s blooming career in 1930s London, including a number of early misjudgments. His presence within the set of ‘Bright Young Things’ that included W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood was an important part of Britten’s sexual and artistic awakening, though he was clearly not comfortable in this social milieu. He complained of not being verbally agile and witty enough. He was far more at home tucked away in the corner at the piano, dashing off a song. Photographs published in this volume tell this story with some poignancy. Auden and Britten eventually became artistic collaborators, albeit uneasy ones. Their operetta Paul Bunyan (1941) – written in voluntary exile in America while both men resided in a house in Brooklyn – was a monumental flop. Britten later claimed that Auden was a bully, tearing up the poet’s letters and returning them to him. Auden became one of Britten’s ‘corpses’. A long list of such former collaborators and ex-friends amassed in the middle and latter parts of the composer’s life.

The house Auden and Britten shared at 7 Middagh St, Brooklyn, was also shared with the tenor Peter Pears, the young author Carson McCullers, the fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar George Davis, and the writers Paul and Jane Bowles. Paul Bowles complained later in life that, although he and Britten shared a breakfast table for months, the waspish Englishman had barely said a word to him. Nevertheless, Britten and Pears contributed to the ‘year-long-party’ that took place in this mock-tudor five-storey house. They performed cabaret songs, improvised ballets, and undertook the serious business of composing some early major works, such as the anti-war orchestral piece Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), a commission accepted, rather cheekily, from the Japanese Imperial Government. The solidification of the relationship between Britten and Pears during this period is  of particular significance. The lifelong partnership between these giants of English music was to define their careers.

Britten’s period of American exile was only partly a reaction to the war in Europe: it was also a chance to escape all the things the composer had begun to despise about his country and its cultural quirks. Britten was a pacifist – a position that cast him as an outsider during the war years, but later proved to be an artistic fillip in works such as the War Requiem. His flight to America as England descended into war put him and Pears in an uncomfortable position when they returned to the United Kingdom in 1942 and had to plead their cases as conscientious objectors. By this time, however, Britten had some triumphant major works under his belt. He had also come to see himself more clearly as an English composer and sought to define himself artistically by this Englishness.

Upon return to England, Britten turned his mind to a new opera, based on a poem by George Crabbe. This was to become Peter Grimes (1945), one of the hallmark works of the twentieth century and one of only a handful from that period to have truly entered the operatic repertoire. It emerged from Britten’s renewed commitment to Englishness, which is reflected in its setting in the ‘Borough’, a fictional fishing village. The role of the anti-hero Grimes was written especially for Pears, who played a central part in the premiere of nearly all Britten’s operatic works. Accused of the death of a young boy in his employ, Grimes is cast out by the village and forced to take his own life. The sounds of the East Anglia coast ripple throughout the lush and spectacular orchestral fabric, while Grimes is a symbol of the outsider. Britten – the gay, pacifist interloper – drew much from his own experience and poured it into this remarkable piece.

Kildea thoroughly documents the troubled first season of Peter Grimes, which was staged by the Saddlers Wells company. The path from its muted initial reception to public adoration is, however, covered with too much detail to gain any clear insight into the reasons for its popularity. That this new opera was born during a period of wartime austerity seems all the more remarkable when, nowadays, Opera Australia barely stages a work written after Puccini (although this perhaps tells us more about the calamitous conservatism of our own times than anything else). Kildea gains a better balance in covering the middle period of Britten’s career, which was marked by the belated success of Peter Grimes and the establishment of the English Opera Group to perform new works for small-scale, touring productions of new English operas (especially those composed by Britten). Britten had certainly learnt about the unwieldy nature of opera companies and his pragmatism was written all over this new venture.

The new works that emerged between 1945 and the early-1960s are, for the most part, given perceptive analysis. Britten’s ability to turn around new large-scale works with great speed was remarkable, although on occasions this facility worked against him. The Rape of Lucretia (1946), the follow-up to Peter Grimes, was conceived, as Kildea points out, in far too hurried circumstances. As a musician, Britten rarely put a foot wrong, but as a dramatist his instincts were not always right, and this sometimes let him down. Brittle to the core and too-easily stung by criticism, he did not always seek out the dramaturgical advice he needed. That Britten did, however, learn a lesson from Lucretia is evident in later works, such as The Turn of the Screw (1954), which is a haunted, disturbing tale based on the book by Henry James. Of a similar size and scale to Lucretia, The Turn of the Screw is one of Britten’s greatest achievements in music drama.

Other works from this period include Gloriana (1953) and the Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), both of which were written for grand opera forces. I was a little surprised to find that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was not given more attention by Kildea, as it seems to me this work has gained a more secure place in the operatic repertoire than many other works by Britten, or anyone else, although Kildea’s critique of the work is incisive. Gloriana has a more troubled history. Written for the coronation celebrations of Elizabeth II, it took as its subject the reign and frailties of Elizabeth I and attracted criticism from both the political establishment and Britten’s artistic peers. Subsequent revivals have shed new light on its qualities, but its reputation seems to have suffered from its initial bad press. (And I have my own regrets about Gloriana, having missed a train connection in Leeds and possibly my only chance of ever seeing a production of this piece, given the current track record of Australian opera productions.) Process, politics and personality are all brought alive by Kildea in his account of this impressive period of sustained creativity.

Britten could be charming, witty and warm when he was relaxed and in the company of Pears, who seemed to bring out the best and worst of his partner’s personality. But as Britten’s fame and wealth grew, so did the unfortunate excesses of his personality. His waspishness and his brittle side came increasingly to the fore. Can you hear it in the music? I think sometimes you can. Kildea works hard to ameliorate the excesses of Britten’s personality by fleshing out the background to the snubbing of friends and the cruelty that Britten (and Pears) indulged in. It makes sense for a biographer to do this, especially as many of the stories still circulate without the context provided in this volume, but in doing so Kildea perhaps goes too far in absolving Britten of his excesses.

The last part of the biography is framed by Theodor Adorno’s conception of artistic lateness, where the overwhelming trajectory of an artist’s work is subverted in the late period: a necessary rupture with earlier lines of thinking as knowledge of mortality creates an uneasy sense of artistic urgency. According to Kildea, this artistic lateness was brought into particular focus by Britten’s ill-health. A bout of heart disease discovered in the 1960s and a heart operation in 1973 (the one in which Kildea alleges syphilis was discovered) led to a slow deterioration and then death in 1976. Britten’s late masterpieces were composed through periods of intense pain and limited physical ability. Every idea was written down as though it might be the last. But there is another thread, too: Britten felt as though he had lost his compositional identity of ‘voice’ in 1970 after bouts of illness and exhaustion. This led him into new areas of artistic exploration. Kildea frames the issue of Britten’s declining health well. Had Britten not known about his own slow downfall, would the quality of works in his late years have been as consistently high? Had he lived another twenty years, what would we have had works of such painful beauty? These are impossible questions to answer, of course, yet I am glad Kildea raises them. Masterpieces, such as the third string quartet and the opera Death in Venice (1973), emerge from the last years of Britten’s life. Despite the pain and exhaustion of ill-health, these works sound like they are in a musical world of their own, haunted by the various ghosts of the composer’s life.

Read the ‘Brittle and Brilliant’ correspondence, with a response from Paul Kildea.