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There are few secrets left to uncover about Benjamin Britten. His gay partnership with Peter Pears, fairly open in his lifetime, appears unremarkable to modern eyes, while his passions for teenaged boys have been explored by documentary makers and biographers without raising a scintilla of suspicion that any child was ever harmed in these avuncular fantasies. The boys themselves have testified to the contrary: the worst that ever happened was a backseat cuddle and a bathtime chat.
Britten’s pacifist and pro-Soviet sympathies are also well outed, and if his refusal to condemn the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia indicate hypocrisy, he was no worse in this respect than other fellow-travellers on the cultural Left. He was certainly neither traitor nor spy, and his relations with the Queen amounted to an awkward amalgam of humble fidelity and unforced personal affection.
The expectation of revelation has sunk so low that a projected collection of Britten’s letters has drifted from Faber & Faber to a remote Suffolk publisher, the Boydell Press. The fourth of eight volumes is published this week with support from the Britten-Pears Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. A quick skim of the 600 pages suggests nothing sensational, but beneath the surface there is shocking cruelty.
Volume four covers the years 1952-57. It finds Britten at the peak of his powers with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd firmly on the world stage, a festival founded at Aldeburgh, an English Opera Group that he runs as a subsidiary, and pressing offers to become music director at Covent Garden. At bewildering speed and concentration, he composes Gloriana for the Queen’s Coronation and Turn of the Screw for Venice, attempts his only ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, and travels to India, Indonesia and Japan to find the materials for his next creative phase.
Amid this whirr of activity, his home life is stuck in the conventions of the provincial middle-class. He does brass-rubbings for recreation and uses Letts Schoolboys Diary to keep personal engagements. He takes careful note of travel expenses, pays his taxes without complaint and buys a vintage Rolls-Royce as soon as he can afford one. Captain Mainwaring would have done no different.
Most of his needs were satisfied locally. When he wanted an assistant to take dictation, drive the car and turn pages at concerts, the manager of the Aldeburgh branch of Barclays Bank volunteered his chorister son, Jeremy Cullum; when the work dried up, Britten helped Cullum and his wife to buy the town’s music store, which they ran for 20 years. Cullum got used to the efficient flow of dictation stopping for long periods while the composer stared wordlessly out to sea.
Exchanges with his librettists, William Plomer and Myfany Piper, take up much of the book; they are workmanlike and supportive. The rest abounds with platitudes. Even loving notes to Pears cloy with domesticity. The voice of Britten is worlds apart from Mahler’s wild letters of yearning, Stravinsky’s acute observations and Noel Coward’s witty asperities. Beside these giant minds, Britten comes over as a prim man who is determined to maintain appearances.
But you have only to scratch at the pleasantries in his letters to find something else – something smalltown, petty and malicious. It would hardly be worth mentioning in a lesser figure but so great was Britten’s influence in his own country that there is reason to suspect that his rancour has left a residue in British music down to present times.
Britten, it appears, was not a nice man to work for. He was fine with those, like the conductor Imogen Holst, who gave him their lives and refrained from speaking their minds. Others who, with the best intentions, suggested improvements to his work or working methods, were destroyed without mercy.
It began with a campaign of whispers. His publisher, Ernst Roth, complained of ‘persistent vilifications and your readiness to listen to them.’ There was no reply from Britten; he was already looking for another publisher.
Basil Douglas, manager of the English Opera Group for seven years, heard of his sacking on the classical grapevine. ‘I certainly would have broken the news myself about not requiring your services,’ says Britten, ‘if there had been anything to break … It was my sincere wish that you could go on being employed by both the Festival and the Group. We all wished it.’
Douglas, a gay insider at Aldeburgh, replied indignantly that Britten and Pears had ruined him with poisoned whispers. ‘If you had been more open with me, you might have saved yourselves a lot of trouble and me a nervous breakdown.’
Britten’s reply sheds the veneer of niceness, exposing his brutal streak. ‘Please stop “getting at” Peter and me,’ he writes to Douglas, ‘and try and realise we do not wish you ill… You have good friends in us unless, of course, you are determined to call us enemies. The situation is in your own hands. Yours ever, Ben.’ Douglas set up as a classical agent and visited Aldeburgh often on business. Britten never spoke to him again.
Abrupt dismissals litter Britten’s ruthless and unsentimental working life. On being told of the suicide of a close friend, the pianist Noel Mewton-Wood, he refused to leave a drinks party he was hosting and later muttered of ‘an awful time, being rung up by newspapers.’ He walked past Michael Tippett at Covent Garden without saying a word after his friend declined to acknowledge Aldeburgh in one of his scores. His godson Michael Berkeley suffered a blight of silence for inadvertently setting one of Britten’s favourite poets.
These asperities were alien to British music, which had grown up in a friendly and collegial way. Elgar was a genial man and Vaughan Williams went out of his way to be kind. Tippett and Walton were open-faced. Britten, the most acclaimed composer this country had ever seen, changed the rules to suit his small personality.
Much of his atmosphere persists in a classical establishment which shows a forbidding face to the outside world and makes its appointments by a process more cloistered than a papal election. Don’t ask why Thomas Ades is the most promoted composer of the moment when Mark-Antony Turnage and Julian Anderson are no less gifted and productive. Don’t dispute the ways top jobs are allocated to nephews and in-laws. Classical music in Britain, for all its pretension to openness and equal opportunity, is a closed shop that functions on whispers and malice. For which we have Lord Britten to thank.
* Letters from a Life (volume 4) is published by the Boydell Press, £45.
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