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.