Saturday, November 23, 2013

For Benjamin Britten, Upon the Centenary of His Birth

by Byron Adams

“Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire . . .”

Edward Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November 1913, a day remembered in Great Britain as a celebration of the wholly mythical patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia. His father was an unprepossessing dentist in Lowestoft, an unremarkable town in Sussex; his determined mother, however, believed from the beginning that her child was destined to be a great composer. So he was.

From the time he was a schoolboy, Britten had an uncanny knowledge of his enormous gifts and how best to cultivate them. The child composed incessantly: much of his supposed juvenilia is of more than merely academic interest. To read how this precocious boy maneuvered the adults around him in order to have lessons with Frank Bridge is to understand the insight and surety that he possessed at the age of eleven. He chose wisely, for Bridge, who had no previous experience teaching composition whatsoever, turned out to be the perfect mentor.

From such beginnings, Britten moved from strength to strength until he was a national figure in his twenties and an international figure by his thirties. By the time Britten was fifty, the émigré theorist Hans Keller was comparing him to Mozart. A more profitable comparison in this case might be with Saint-Saëns, another prodigy who fully realized his early promise and whose habits of clarity, professionalism, and unceasing industry enabled him to produce music like an apple tree produces apples. Like Saint-Saëns, Britten developed such an extraordinary level of musicianship—both were superb pianists—that he was accused of being merely “facile,” or, even more damning within the context of British society, “clever.” Despite such critical strictures, both composers contributed a large body of music to the repertory that remains firmly in place.

“Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.”

Toward the end of his life, Philip Brett had realized how much Britten owed to a British predecessor about whom he had little good to say, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Like Vaughan Williams, Britten arranged British folksongs. Vaughan Williams had co-founded the Leith Hill Festival near his birthplace in Surrey; Britten co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival near his birthplace in Sussex. Vaughan Williams composed music for children and amateurs, as did Britten, whose opera for children, Noye’s Fludde, is a perfect example of music that enthralls non-professional performers and listeners alike. For their devotion and generosity, both composers were awarded the highest honor offered by their nation, the Order of Merit.

While it is true that Vaughan Williams had his circle of admirers, he eschewed anyone or anything that smacked of hero-worship or sycophancy. Britten, on the other hand, needed constant reassurance on a scale not seen since the death of the narcissistic Edward Elgar. Britten’s early friend, the poet W. H. Auden, warned the young composer about his propensity to build “a warm nest of love” in order to protect himself from the battering of the world—unsurprisingly, Britten dropped Auden soon after. But Aldeburgh, however splendid, did in fact become a cocoon and a defense against the world: Felix Aprahamian, a distinguished music critic, had many stories of Britten’s thin-skinned overreaction to the mildest of critiques. The protective “court” at Aldeburgh, headed by Britten’s life partner, the great tenor Peter Pears, cannot be dismissed out-of-hand, however, for the very “nest of love” that insulated Britten against the world also made possible the ideal conditions that enabled the creation of his finest scores. In a very real and ongoing sense, the Aldeburgh Festival is one of the greatest gifts ever given by a composer to a nation.

“O weep, child weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.”

Britten was a pacifist and a homosexual. This represented two strikes against him during the Second World War, although he and Pears, who shared his partner’s political views, performed recitals throughout Britain during the conflict, bringing a measure of beauty to factory workers, laborers, and prisoners. (One such prisoner was Michael Tippett, a more aggressive pacifist than either Britten or Pears, who was sentenced to several months in prison for refusing to do anything that could be construed as “war work.”) In such a brief celebratory prose fanfare as this, it is impossible to do full justice to Philip Brett’s extraordinary and nuanced explorations of the role that homosexuality played in Britten’s life and work. Brett’s essays on Britten are highly recommended, therefore, as is the splendid new biography by Paul Kildea, which is surely one of the most even-handed books written about a great twentieth century composer.

Britten’s homosexuality, which he never acknowledged publicly during his lifetime, was an “open secret,” as everybody “knew” but nobody said a word about it in public. This paradox, as well as the covert hostility leveled toward Britten during his lifetime, is exemplified neatly by an episode in the life of the decidedly heterosexual composer Gerald Finzi. During the interval of the BBC broadcast of the première of Britten’s Billy Budd, Finzi telephoned other envious heterosexual composers to deplore the use of such a patently “homosexual” topic as the basis for an opera.

Then there is Britten’s attraction to adolescent boys. This cannot be swept under the carpet, as the sufferings of boys provide a major theme that chimes throughout such works as Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, and Curlew River, as well as in religious works such as Saint Nicholas, with its recounting of a miracle in which the saint revives a hapless group of pickled boys. Quite a few of Britten’s listeners remain unsettled by his obsession with boys. Indeed, there are those listeners and performers who honestly cannot come to grips with the composer’s ephebophilia and so reject his work entirely.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that Benjamin Britten was never a sexual predator of children, as John Bridcut revealed clearly in a sensitive documentary and book, both entitled Britten’s Children. At the same time, Britten suffered intensely from his attraction to boys. Ronald Duncan, librettist of Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, aptly called the composer a “reluctant homosexual.” It would be a dire mistake to revise history and claim in rosy hindsight that the composer was either a precursor of “gay liberation” or a positive role model for anyone in the LGBT community.  He was repressed; he often felt guilty; he suffered unimaginable torment at times.

“O wear your tribulation like a rose.”

What Britten never did was to falter in the full realization of his gifts as a composer. In this, certainly, he is a role model: he learned his craft completely; he practiced it daily; he aimed at excellence; and he gave of himself until the end. Britten literally worked himself to death. His accomplishment is unique and precious. Britten was a great British composer who reached an international audience: he is the heir to Dunstable, Byrd, Purcell, Elgar, Holst, and Vaughan Williams, among others. The Aldeburgh Festival continues today, a benefice to Sussex, to Britain, and to the world.

Each section of this centenary appreciation has been headed by quotations from Auden’s “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” which was set by Britten as his Hymn to Saint Cecilia, op. 27,  premiered on the composer’s birthday, 22 November 1942, during the darkest days of the Second World War. It is fitting, therefore, that Auden should have the final word, not from this radiant poem to a legendary saint, but through lines drawn from a poem that may well have been inspired by Britten himself, “The Composer”:

“Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.

Pour out your presence, O delight, cascading
The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,
Our climate of silence and doubt invading:
You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,
Are unable to say an existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.”

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology in the Department of Music at the University of California, Riverside. He is editor of Edward Elgar and His World, the scholarly volume that appeared in conjunction with the Bard Music Festival (Princeton University Press, 2011).

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