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.
Britten had the misfortune to be born with a talent so much greater than that of his competitors that winning came fatally easily. Now this is plain to see. W.H. Auden saw it at the time and foresaw the consequences. In January 1942, in a now famous letter, he wrote to Britten: ‘Wherever you go you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do ... You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself in this way, i.e. to build yourself a warm nest of love ... by playing the lovable talented little boy.’ In the struggle between ‘Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention’, Auden went on, Britten was much too ready to take the safer option, and this explained his attachment to ‘thin-as-a-board juveniles, i.e. to the sexless and innocent’ and his frequent illnesses. Auden’s percipience foretold the doom of his own friendship with Britten. It was only a matter of time before Britten turned his back on the insistently forthright poet. But if in many ways Auden was startlingly right about Britten, his account of the composer’s sexual make-up is questionable. Auden assumes that Britten’s sexual interest in boys is a cop-out, a way of avoiding the frightening disorder of a fully expressed adult sexuality. This reduces paedophilia to a displacement activity, denying it as a coherent source of sexual motivation in its own right. It also suggests that the impulse to love children is less dangerous than the impulse to love adults. The opposite would seem nearer the truth. No taboo is greater than the taboo against paedophilia. If Britten was sexually timid, then this was perhaps the result rather than the cause of his desire for boys. It simply wasn’t open to him to express that desire fully. By contrast, risking imprisonment for his quite openly displayed relationship with Peter Pears must have seemed to him a matter of no particular courage.
Far from being a soft option, Britten’s attraction to pre-pubescent and young teenage boys caused him, we must imagine, a special kind of anguish, not just because his morality forbade him to act on his desires, but because of the unceasing repetitiousness of those desires, their compulsive insatiability. It is this aspect of the paedophile predicament which is so sympathetically captured by William Golding in his portrait of Mr Pedigree, the poor benighted soul who haunts the municipal parks of Greenfield in Darkness Visible. Mr Pedigree is described as ‘stuck like a broken gramophone record’.
Carpenter’s insistence on researching the last detail of Britten’s paedophilia opens him to the charge of gratuitous curiosity. At times his importunity in quizzing people about what Britten precisely got up to can seem tiring and faintly objectionable. But it does have the merit that it sets the record straight in an area where gossip about the composer was inevitably rife. We now know all we need to know about the pats on the head, the paternal hugs and goodnight kisses bestowed by Britten on the boys who processed guilelessly (and, in some cases, not so guilelessly) through his life, and thanks to this knowledge we can imagine ourselves into the most private and problematic area of the composer’s psyche, from where we emerge feeling sympathy for the man’s plight and respect for his self-restraint.
Setting the record straight is only a modest part of Carpenter’s project in this biography. His more ambitious aim is to relate Britten’s emotional and sexual life to his music. This is a tall order; it’s clear that Carpenter doesn’t really appreciate how tall. He identifies and catalogues the links between Britten’s music and other aspects of his personality with a brisk, no-nonsense zeal, trampling on interpretative subtlety like an amateur archaeologist let loose on a wonderful burial mound.
Britten’s undeniably expressionistic music pushes us willy-nilly in the direction of biography. It does so in two different, if closely related, ways: through its attachment to texts and stories which appear to articulate what it is about, and in the sense it gives us of a palpable, if elusive, personality defect.
Well before he met Peter Pears it was clear that Britten’s musical thought inclined naturally to the setting of words. The Quatre chansons françaises, ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’, A Boy was Born, Our Hunting Fathers, Les Illuminations, establish a habit of inspiration which remained unchanged up to Britten’s death – in 1976, at the comparatively early age of 63. That this habit was powerfully reinforced by Peter Pears is obvious: Pears drew out of him much of Britten’s greatest music, while showing virtually no interest in anything the composer wrote for anyone else. But the notion that Pears confined Britten’s development is implausible: Britten was ruthless in eliminating obstacles to his genius, and if it hadn’t met his creative needs to write for Pears, we may be sure he wouldn’t have done so.
At its greatest, and especially in Pears’s unparalleled interpretations of it, Britten’s music responds to texts with visionary insight. One only has to compare his setting of Keats’s sonnet ‘To Sleep’ with, say, John Tavener’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb’, to appreciate this. Tavener’s setting is original, attractively naive, touching, but it leaves one with the feeling that it is just one of many ways in which music could be fitted to these particular words, even that there are other possible words for this particular music. In Britten’s setting, music and words breed with one another to form a unique further entity. Britten’s music awakens expressive possibilities in Keats’s poem which have lain dormant within it, while Keats’s poem appears to clothe the musical notes with the rich specificity of verbal meaning.
It is natural, then, that we should read Britten’s music in the light of the texts with which it is interpenetrated, and from there it is a short step to reading the music as a source of biographical insight. This is because so much of Britten’s most powerful music is associated with texts and dramas treating the same broad area of psychological concern. A pattern establishes itself, and patterns demand explanation. Noticing that Britten’s major operas are pre-dominantly about the abuse of children or young men by adults (and, to some extent, the seduction of adults by young men or children), or noticing the music’s repeated return to the experience of nightmare, we are bound to wonder why this should be. Once we have opened the door between Britten’s music and our knowledge of his life, a tidal exchange takes place which we cannot reverse, the musical flowing into the biographical and the biographical into the musical until the levels on both sides of the divide are equal.
Navigating the rapid and confusing flows between Britten’s music and the other aspects of his personality calls for a mercurial critical sensibility which recognises how treacherously difficult it is to discuss music in terms of texts and narratives without reducing the music to crude and schematic verbal paraphrases. Humphrey Carpenter does not possess such a sensibility. His attempts at weaving links between Britten’s life and his works are woefully lacking in interpretative subtlety and bring about exactly the kind of reductive collapse of the music into the life which is most damaging to the music. Hence, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge reflects ‘all the conflicting states of mind Britten was experiencing while he composed it’, even down to his ‘delight in discovering the Suffolk countryside’ ‘Peter Grimes becomes Britten’s dream of what he might be like if he abandoned Pears’; Owen Wingrave’s sigh ‘I am so tired’ expresses ‘the weariness which by 1970 was so often perceptible in Britten’. Much of the time all that Carpenter is doing as a critic is matching up aspects of Britten’s life with the texts Britten chose to set to music. And his attempts to read literal correspondences into the music are greatly helped by his understanding of music as just text in another form – in short, as code. So, ‘C major ... generally symbolises purity and simplicity,’ ‘hypocrisy is suggested by the discord between the organ (A major) and the church bell (E flat),’ ‘a series of major triads ... are (of course) Britten’s language for “naturalness”.’
We do not yet have a fully imagined interpretation of Britten’s work, although Carpenter in this extremely readable and well organised survey of the life, and Peter Evans in The Music of Benjamin Britten, have laid down the groundwork on which someone could now build. Anyone who attempts a critical reading which integrates life and work will have to confront the most interesting and nebulous of the charges brought against Britten: that his music is in some way flawed, that an essential ingredient is often missing from it.
The experience of an absence at the heart of Britten’s music is common. It’s as though people felt the true greatness of the music was somehow held in check, always imminent but never altogether revealed. ‘He wouldn’t give himself. He always stopped. He wouldn’t quite go over the top,’ Robert Tear thinks, and Michael Tippett speaks wistfully of Britten’s ‘immense possibilities’. Those possibilities were abundantly evident from the start. The young Britten was a musical prodigy who poured out music in an unstaunchable flood, music which showed him, as a prodigy, the equal of Mozart or Mendelssohn. It is not just the technical precociousness of this music that is so striking, but its emotional fullness. The expression of feeling is never compromised, either in the small scale or the large. ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’ is simple and touching, the Quatre chansons françaises as fecund as anything written by the young Richard Strauss. Perhaps inside every 14-year-old boy there is a mature mezzo soprano struggling to get out. Certainly there was in the young Benjamin Britten, and he knew how to give expression to her. Where did this exuberantly released energy go to? It can be heard in the recordings of Britten’s exquisitely musical and uninhibited piano playing, and by all accounts it flowed through his work as a conductor. But in the compositions? True, the creative fluency of Britten’s youth never left him. He possessed to an extraordinary degree the ability to think music, composing away from the keyboard faster than copyists could transcribe what he was writing. He exercised this ability from morning to night for the whole of his life, as far as health allowed him, and when he wasn’t on concert tours with Peter Pears, or conducting, or making gramophone recordings, or planning the next season of the Aldeburgh Festival, or supervising the construction of a concert hall. But the works he wrote with such unblocked energy came to define a mature style characterised by a certain bloodlessness: the bloodlessness of fear, on the one hand, and the bloodlessness of an idealised innocence, on the other.
In a letter to a friend, Britten described his experience with the mad manservant as ‘very weird’. One can well imagine that it must have been pretty unnerving. It has some of the elements of an episode in a gothic horror story: the house by the sea on a winter’s night, the composer waking to hear disordered music above the waves pounding the shore, downstairs in the darkened room a madman ‘composing’ at the piano. It’s an eerie story, but it also has its funny side. That it should have been Britten, of all composers, who was spooked in this way, is comically fitting. In the history of Western music there has perhaps never been a greater exponent than he of the weird and the uncanny, of those ‘nightly fears and fantasies’ that make our hair stand on end and our flesh creep.
In Britten’s very large musical output the weird, or what German so well expresses as das Unheimliche – literally, the ‘unhomely’, perhaps even the ‘unwholesome’ – takes a central and defining place. This weirdness covers a range of expressive and aesthetic effects. Some of these effects are deliberate exercises in atmosphere, like the howling of the wolf in the first movement of the Spring Symphony or the caterwauling in Nocturne. In other works, the descent of the music into a dark and frightening place is felt to mark the structural core: as in the Serenade, for example, which is centred on settings of Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ and the spine-chilling Lyke Wake Dirge, or in the War Requiem, where the point of greatest expressive intensity is felt less in the generalised terrors of the Dies Irae than in the private eeriness of the setting of Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped/Down some profound dull tunnel’). Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice are each in their different ways studies in musical nightmare, while Curlew River takes place in a peculiar limbo and has as its main character a madwoman (sung by a man) whose habitual manner of address is a glissando moaning. Even the spiritual in Britten’s music is more unearthly than heavenly; and when the music deals with nature its characteristic sensitivity is towards the evening primrose, which ‘hermitlike, shunning the light, wastes its fair bloom upon the night’, or those creepy marsh flowers – mallow, henbane, or the salt lavender ‘that lacks perfume’.
In the voice of Peter Pears, his lover, Britten found the perfect instrument for expressing the inner character of the weird in his music. This voice was perhaps the oddest any ‘great’ tenor has ever possessed: its essential quality was constrained, suggesting tension rather than release, the opposite of a natural voice, but ideally suited to the expression of the spiritual cold sweat. Pears’s performances of Britten’s music seemed less like interpretations than realisations of its inner spirit.
The timbre of Pears’s voice helped to define an important part of the identity of Britten’s music, the dark aspect of its characteristic tone. The light side is also strongly associated with a particular vocal sound: the sound of boys’ voices, especially the harsh sound of the Westminster Cathedral Choir boys’ voices, which Britten loved. The music Britten wrote for this medium is white, drained of colour, bright and brittle. Sexless, thin-as-a-board music, one might call it, piping of an unreal, never realised innocence – the music of The Ceremony of Carols or the Missa Brevis, the ‘Driving Boy’ setting in the Spring Symphony or the chorus of boys at the close of the War Requiem.
Why did Britten write this kind of music – strung out between psychological hell and an unstable, fragile heaven? Humphrey Carpenter imagines that knowing how Britten lived will help to answer this question. In one sense, there’s a fallacy in this, because the music is in the end what matters to us and the music tells its own story clearly enough. The knowledge that Richard Strauss showed next to no interest in sex does nothing to affect our appreciation of the sensuality in his music, and Bartok’s musical austerities would not be lightened were we to find out that, as rumour has it, he liked his wife to dress up as a duck when they made love. If Carpenter had discovered that Britten was a genial, untroubled chap, we would still hear the note of sickening unease in the musical embodiment of Keats’s ‘curious Conscience ... burrowing like a mole’, or the arid frustration in Aschenbach’s opening utterance in Death in Venice. The biography that confirms the origins of these effects is, strictly speaking, a tautology, just as the one that contradicted our expectations would be an irrelevance. But this is clearly too absolute a judgment. For what Carpenter does by documenting Britten’s life is to give us a rich source of metaphor for the description of Britten’s music, just as the music provides a source of metaphor for a description of the life.
In this reciprocal process the idea of absence or of something thwarted is central. And that’s why it is wrong to suggest, as David Matthews does in a recent review of Carpenter’s book, that Britten’s greatness was achieved through his emotional anguish, rather than despite it. To lose the sense that something is missing in Britten’s music – the what-could-have-been and the what-almost-but not quite is – is to lose the story that makes the music ultimately so moving. Death in Venice, which is tree of a sense of the withheld because it is about withholding, offers us a language in which to tell this story. In it, the composer is trapped in an emotional space from which there is no escape. Condemned to desire what he cannot possess and what, were he to possess it, could not satisfy him, he finds he is unable fully to enter into his creative identity, but is compelled to act out in his music over and over again the experience of his emotional imprisonment – ‘stuck like a broken gramophone record’.
Death in Venice, Britten’s last major work, written with Mephistopheles (in the form of a Harley Street heart surgeon) waiting impatiently at the door, is a frightening work. It sits like a fierce and sickly sun at the core of Britten’s musical universe, and everything else he wrote seems to orbit it at varying speeds and distances. No other work in Britten’s enormous output focuses more sharply the relationship between his musical and his non-musical personality.
Carpenter’s description of Death in Venice as ‘the least claustrophobic of Britten’s operas’ is inexplicable to me, as is his conclusion that by the end of the work Aschenbach ‘has come to a true understanding of himself’ and having ‘regained his innocence ... can go calmly to his death’. Neither Thomas Mann’s novella nor Britten’s treatment of it give an ounce of support for these readings. The imprisonment of Aschenbach’s mind in the maze of desire is imaged in the maze of Venice, a closed-in world, fetid with the stench of plague.
Britten’s music burrows its way directly into this hallucinatory prison with its first notes, Aschenbach’s nagging complaint of mental sterility, ‘My mind beats on and no words come,’ which uses up all 12 notes of the scale in a cramped, emphysemic figure, more of a knot than an unfolding. The densely over determined nature of this opening musical image is typical of the opera’s musical idiom: an idiom which focuses relentlessly on a narrow band of emotional states, and in so doing acts out the experience of mental entrapment with which it is obsessively concerned. The baffling symmetries and mirrorings of Venice, of Aschenbach’s thoughts, of Britten’s music, form a seamless universe from which escape is impossible. The queasy gondola music which accompanies Aschenbach’s restless pursuit of the beautiful boy, Tadzio, around Venice, sounds the same, as it were, from wherever you happen to be in it. The circular logic of Aschenbach’s meditation on Plato’s Phaedrus is aped by the circular progress of the music which comments on it: broken chords played by harp and piano in chiasmic contrary motion. Even Tadzio’s music – sensual and alluring – is self-reflective in its pentatonic sameness: like a tape loop going round and round on itself ad infinitum. Death in Venice is a merciless reworking of the Tantalus myth, and the idea of development or self-discovery or resolution is axiomatically foreign to it.
Twice in the opera Aschenbach allows himself to dream of an impossible infantile omnipotence: ‘What if all were dead,’ he muses, ‘and only we two left alive.’ Like a grotesque parody of the popular song ‘if you were the only girl in the world’, these words sum up the terrifying impotence of Aschenbach’s emotional position, its desolate solipsism. Only by annihilating all others can he conceive of possessing his longed-for boy. In the last bars of the opera the annihilation, but without the possession, could almost have occurred. As Tadzio wanders far out towards the sea and Aschenbach lies collapsed in his chair on the beach, the sense of enclosure is total. We are on a planet which can no longer support human life, a parched and sterile place, flooded with a merciless white light. David Matthews identifies this unspeakable closure as the point at which Britten’s music ‘transcends guilt’ and achieves ‘a state of peace beyond it’. But the music in these last bars has nothing to do with peace, only an infinite suspension and frustration of mental and emotional fulfilment: the vibraphone shimmering on its high A, the violins reaching and reaching for their thin high harmonic two octaves above the vibraphone – both permanently blocked by the G sharp pedal in the double basses, doubled by piano, harp and timpani.
The emotional immediacy of Death in Venice is shocking. In it we seem to be looking straight into another human mind. The opera moves us not as the story of Aschenbach, but as part of the story of its composer, the critical episode of that story, moreover, in which the composer gives up trying to evade or transcend his emotional imprisonment and portrays it directly. The poignancy of Britten’s utterance in Death in Venice was most acute in its first staging, when Peter Pears sang Aschenbach. In the last and greatest role that Britten was to create for the singer, the identification of the composer’s voice with the voice of his lover was completed. In Death in Venice Pears became Britten and Britten Pears, and the weird ventriloquism of their musical-emotional relationship was consummated in a symbolic act of mutual annihilation, a musical Liebestod.
However we choose to interpret the details of Britten’s story, the image which presides over it is of enormous creative force imperfectly baulked. Like one of George Crabbe’s peculiar Suffolk coastal flowers, or a weed forcing its way through concrete, Britten’s genius was tough and indomitable: drawing sustenance from wherever it could, pushing towards the light by whatever involuted route it could find, and in the course of time bolting over a huge area of English musical culture with its strange, unwholesome blooms. Not the least wonderful aspect of this prodigious musical plant was the way it colonised the preserves of the English middle class. By the time he had become Lord Britten – the only English composer ever so to be ennobled – Benjamin Britten was English music, as far as the middle-class establishment was concerned. His following among the frightfully nice extended to the Queen and the Queen Mother. That delightful Mr Britten, dear sweet Ben, with his ambassadorial accent and the demeanour of the head of an Oxbridge college, and his music about sexual frustration, sadism and despair. When one looks back on Britten’s life, it is hard to tell who was co-opting whom. My own sense is that Britten had the last laugh. In the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, I once observed an old lady, buried in furs and hung about with priceless jewellery, peer impassively through a lorgnette at Egon Schiele’s drawings of women masturbating. The rituals of the Aldeburgh festival played out a similar game of double standards. It is a game, perhaps, that the English are especially good at. At any rate, one cannot help wondering who among the sweet and charming people who flocked to hear Ben’s last opera took in what it was really about.
Before it became an adjective ‘weird’ was a noun meaning ‘fate’. The agency of weird in the life of Benjamin Britten is, to borrow a turtleword, awesome. For two hundred years English music was barren of musical genius, and when it finally materialised it did so in conditions in which it was hemmed in and hedged about and unable altogether to flourish. On the human scale of things, Britten could count himself fortunate. Weird may have decreed that he should struggle with the psychological destiny of Mr Pedigree – who was compelled to hang about outside municipal lavatories in search of children to pervert, and who became the object of the deepest scorn in his community – but it had also given him an incomparable musical talent, which was to make him into one of the nation’s cultural icons. When Britten heard the news of the suicide of a friend and fellow homosexual, Noel Mewton-Wood, he ‘talked of the terrifyingly small gap between madness and non-madness’. This is the gap we perceive between the composer and his mad manservant. On the one side, the creator of an enduring monument to the sufferings of the Mr Pedigrees of this world; on the other, a poor deranged man pounding out discords on a piano in the middle of the night – eventually to be taken away by his mother.
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