- Benjamin Britten by Humphrey Carpenter
Faber, 680 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 571 14324 5
Among the minor characters to appear in this biography, the least important (he only gets two sentences) is a manservant whom Britten employed early in 1950, just before starting work on his opera Billy Budd. The man, who is not named, went mad. He believed he was a great composer and that Britten was his servant. In the middle of the night, he would come downstairs at Crag House, in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, where Britten was living at the time, and play crashing discords on the piano. Eventually, his mother came and took him away.
The effect of this story, which Carpenter appears to have included simply for its strangeness, is suddenly to make us aware of how immersed we have become in the enclosed universe of the great man’s life. Biographies often give the impression that the world revolves around their subject. A biography of Benjamin Britten will be especially prone to this distortion, because Britten himself thought the world revolved around him and insisted that others conform to the illusion. The mad servant burlesques this aspect of Britten’s character. He usurps Britten’s place at the centre of the stage, pushing him to the margin. Momentarily, Britten the solipsist becomes the creature of another’s solipsism. For once, the subsumer is subsumed.
Humphrey Carpenter’s assiduously documented biography leaves no doubt about the centripetal force of Benjamin Britten’s personality. Nor about the centrifugal violence with which people unwise enough to let themselves be sucked into that centre were so often sent flying out of it again. In the testimony of those who recall working with Britten the language of attraction and repulsion ebbs and flows: ‘It was like being with someone you were in love with’; ‘he just used people, and he finished with them, and that was that’; ‘he could make you believe you were the only person in the world’; ‘he devoured people and spewed out what was left and no use to him’; ‘if you said the wrong thing to Ben, you’d get a look from those cold blue eyes’; ‘he had the gift of relating to you in conversation which made you feel as if you were in a warm bath.’
Britten had an extreme need for the devotion of others. His ability to charm people into giving him this devotion was balanced by an inability to deal with the closeness and reciprocal demands that followed. No small part of Carpenter’s biography is given over to the sorry tales of those who fell victim to this lethal combination of character traits. Musicians who were invited to sing or play at the Aldeburgh Festival were without explanation summarily dismissed; librettists given to understand they had achieved deep creative rapport with the composer were ruthlessly replaced; trusted and trusting helpers and administrators were dumped after years of devoted service. Surviving the siren call of Aldeburgh required a special kind of mental discipline. When Heather Harper first went to sing for Britten she was warned: ‘When you go down there, you do your work, and then get away. Don’t try to get involved too closely. Otherwise you’ll get your fingers burnt.’ Ann Wood recalls: ‘you really needed just a little bit to be apart, or you really did risk annihilation.’ Rosemond Strode, Britten’s last amanuensis, speaks of Aldeburgh as a ‘flypaper’.
The mental cruelties that Britten inflicted on people cannot be explained away. Yet it is equally a mistake, and an injurious one, to make Britten out to be evil-minded when so much in the record, as Carpenter gives it to us, asks us to see him as having been unusually kind, loving and generous. Perhaps the contradiction needs no resolution. My own guess, however, is that Britten wanted to be nice, but found himself being nasty. That in certain kinds of situation his conscious intentions were overridden by inner compulsions which he was too weak to control. That inside the well-meaning, diffident adult there was a prodigious infant clamouring for attention.
Theodor Adorno wrote of his teacher Alban Berg that ‘he successfully avoided becoming adult without remaining infantile,’ which could scarcely be said of Benjamin Britten, whose attempt to become adult had, incidentally, included at the age of 20 a plan to study composition with Alban Berg, a plan that was partly thwarted by Britten’s mother, partly by her son’s inability to go against her wishes. Britten’s difficulties in growing up were very obvious. When in his late teens and early twenties he began his career in London, people noted how ‘young and schoolboyish’ he was. His diaries from that time record enthusiasms for the novels of J.M. Barrie and Arthur Ransome, for Emil and the Detectives and The Sword in the Stone. And he was much pre-occupied with writing a string quartet about his schooldays, with movements given titles like ‘P.T.’ and ‘Ragging’. His emotional life centred on his mother. Mrs Britten – ‘darling mummy ... angel of my heart’ – was hugely ambitious for her youngest son and suffocatingly attentive to him. She died in 1937 when Britten was 23, and for the rest of his life Britten seems to have tried to replace her (‘he looked for a surrogate mother in every relationship,’ says Elizabeth Sweeting). His ‘marriage’ to Peter Pears, begun shortly after Mrs Britten’s death, may be partly understood in this light (Pears’s singing voice, it was noted, was uncannily similar to Mrs Britten’s), as may his lifelong willingness to be looked after, sometimes dominated, by a series of maternal housekeepers. Under the management of these ladies, domestic arrangements in Aldeburgh replicated the conditions of a certain kind of childhood. The daily regime was regular and orderly. Britten worked, walked and played, the housekeeper kept house. Meals consisted of ‘nursery food’; mince, herrings, rice pudding, apple pie, treacle tart or spotted dog. Relaxation came in the form of jigsaws, or games of Happy Families or draughts, games which Britten insisted were played properly and which he had to win. In everything he did, winning was important to Britten, whether it was a game of cards or the building of a new concert hall, a tennis match or the staging of an opera. Criticism was intolerable to him.