Britten when young

Frank Kermode

  • Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten Vol. I 1923-39, Vol. II 1939-45 edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed
    Faber, 1403 pp, £75.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 571 15221 X

We may nowadays he chary about using the word ‘genius’, but we still have a good idea what is meant by it. For example, there are great numbers of very gifted musicians who are admired but not called geniuses. But there are others manifestly prodigious, performing, often at extraordinarily early ages, a variety of feats so complex that the musical layman could hardly imagine, even with the most desperate labour, accomplishing any one of them, while even musicians are astonished: and we then reach for the good, handy, vague Enlightenment word and call them geniuses. The list includes Mozart and Mendelssohn; and, despite all the limiting judgments, it includes Benjamin Britten.

At a time when there was more interest than there is now in deciding what genius was, and what a genius was, Fichte argued that ‘where genius is really present, there industry is found spontaneously, and develops with a steady growth ... where industry is not to be found, then it is not genius ... which has shown itself, but only some mean and unworthy motive in place of it.’ Industry, then, is a necessary though clearly not a sufficient condition of genius. Earlier Kant had named taste, no doubt industriously developed, as a necessary quality, and was aware that it might be in conflict with another precondition – that a certain imaginative wildness is also required, indeed is so essential that it is possible to think of it as genius, taste being that which ‘introduces a clearness and order into the plenitude of thought ... Where the interests of these qualities clash ... and there has to be a sacrifice of something, then it should rather be on the side of genius,’ here meaning, I suppose, something like ‘imaginative wildness’. In the end, it must submit in order to flourish; there must be control, discipline, industry.

Non-geniuses, aware of their lack, though probably confident of their taste, often recognise genius in others, but it may be so unexpected, so wantonly original in its manifestations, that they withhold applause and censure genius for failure to submit to discipline or taste. Something of this sort happened, and still happens, to Britten.

Musicians of genius tend to declare themselves early, not only by what they do themselves but also by the ease with which they seem to recognise, and put to use, the genius of other musicians, while cultivating their own voices with ruthless industry and forming their own accommodations between genius and taste. They often find it as natural as it is necessary to work prodigiously hard, as Fichte suggested they must; so it was with Britten. Yet he was often censured for failures of taste, for being too smart to take proper note of his elders and betters.

Commending a recent Prom performance of the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes, a Guardian music critic remarked that the ‘Moonlight’ interlude formed a link with Elgar, whose First Symphony was also played at the concert. At the same time he regretted that the Grimes Passacaglia wasn’t included. Earlier this summer I heard the Sea Interludes, and also the Passacaglia, at Aldeburgh, in a programme dominated by Berg’s Der Wein. After the concert a distinguished composer asked me to agree that in the company of the Berg the Britten had sounded like movie music – except, of course, for the marvellous Passacaglia, which, as it happens, owes much to Berg.

It is not hard to see that a young composer, wildly imaginative, might prefer Shostakovich or Berg or Mahler to Elgar, for whom young Britten hadn’t much time: indeed he had almost none for any older modern English composer except his teacher Frank Bridge. They all represented a taste he did not want to acquire. And it struck me that behind the critic’s detection of a link with Elgar there was the vestige of an old desire – that Britten, though he was certainly allowed to admire Berg, should somehow be drawn back within the boundaries of English music. It seems that some of the early conflicts of opinion illustrated in this huge book may well continue for some time.

Music apart, Britten thought of himself as mere English and during his American sojourn was homesick for Suffolk (though when he came back he pined for the USA). But with music it was different. He studied anything that he thought might give him tips for his own – for instance, quite improbably, the score of Der Rosenkavalier while he was writing Peter Grimes. In 1936, after hearing a concert performance of Shostakovich’s The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he wrote in his diary that he would ‘defend it through thick & thin against these charges of “lack of style” ... It is the composer’s heritage to take what he wants from where he wants – & to write music ... The “eminent English Renaissance” composers sniggering in the stalls was typical. There is more music in a page of Macbeth than in the whole of their “elegant” output!’ This is Britten at 22, expressing opinions he never wholly gave up.

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