Biographical Materials

Alan Hollinghurst

  • Remembering Britten edited by Alan Blyth
    Hutchinson, 181 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 09 144950 2
  • Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936 by Donald Mitchell
    Faber, 176 pp, £7.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 571 11715 5

Donald Mitchell recalls that Benjamin Britten had a low opinion of music critics in newspapers. Alan Blyth’s compilation Remembering Britten would have done little to make him change his mind: it is a book fundamentally misconceived and often grotesque in execution. The tributary volume of memoirs, such as the one Stephen Spender compiled after Auden’s death, has the value not only of illuminating its subject but of providing a complex shading of reaction and relation through the personalities of the contributors. Alan Blyth has recorded reminiscences from 30 persons who knew Britten, and then systematically eradicated the element of personality by paraphrasing the recollections in his own words. Only Imogen Holst and Sir Michael Tippett have escaped this platitudinous reworking since their contributions had appeared previously elsewhere, and the effect of their words is of a far higher intensity than that of the others’. The absurd though sympathetic grandeur of Tippett’s style carries a real conviction: ‘The news of Benjamin Britten’s death brought a sense of loss to every musical person of the whole world’; or, ‘a sense of death was sharper still in Death in Venice, the last of all operas.’ This ‘last of all’, however, proves to be a mistranscription of the original article: the proof-reading throughout is slovenly – ironically in a book which repeatedly comments on the punishingly high standards Britten always set himself.

It is certain that the rest of the contributors, highly intelligent people including some of the world’s greatest musicians, would have made more impression by themselves than in Blyth’s versions. None of them would have written: ‘The attitude that the artist was in any way an ancillary operation in life was anathema to Britten.’ Or: ‘He knew that they had perhaps accepted it.’ Or the more purely nonsensical: ‘Britten was anxious only to write fruitfully for specific events and for specific people.’ A list of the pieces he was anxious to write unfruitfully is, alas, not included. The effect of this technique is not only to misrepresent the rememberers, but to condescend to them by the use of a tone of almost fatuous chumminess or cosiness, as if the pieces were intended, by some sinister Audenesque transformation, for the Old Boys’ News column of a prep-school magazine:

Bill and his brother were in charge of the boat, a converted naval motor-launch. They went across the North Sea, then up the river – an enterprising venture. Britten was the life and soul of the party, observant of every detail. Food was bought on the way ...

Peter Pears and Britten would often give her [Princess Mary] a small, private recital, just half a dozen Schubert songs that were then in their repertory – not too taxing for anybody.

Still, there is inevitably some matter in the book, and until Donald Mitchell’s biography of the composer appears, it will be a primary source of information, and reveal, if sketchily, patterns or emphases which will require the authority of the biographer to set them in place. One thing has long been clear: that Britten had a dislike of verbalisation, that his life was music, and that his personality is far less readily available in his own verbal formulations than, say, Auden’s. The rememberers find it hard, and are not helped, to convey the quality of Britten’s presence and to relate it to recountable outward detail. Little remembered acts of kindness look unimpressive on the page, and the passing jokes, robbed of context, fall flat. Strivings for the reality of the man range between Stephen Reiss’s straightfaced statement that Britten ‘was not interested in business or the City’ and Janet Baker’s superlatives, comparing him within a page to Mozart, Schubert, Previn, Barenboim, Klemperer and the Queen.

There is indeed some truth in all these comparisons; and Britten himself changed. The young prodigy of Donald Mitchell’s book can be admired in the unshakable security of his historical position, revolutionising insular British music and performance, and almost single-handedly recreating British opera; the older man is increasingly (and latterly on account of illness) withdrawn in dedication to his art, inaccessible and difficult. There is a pronounced pattern of ruptures throughout the book: suspected of some professional infidelity, or daring to disagree with the master, person after person is banished from favour, often never to be readmitted. The reverent tone of recall, and Blyth’s banalities, are at odds with this discordant factor, and only Sir Frederick Ashton and Robert Tear express an independent disenchantment, the former in something close to bitchiness, the latter in a more technical way: Tear was banished after choosing to sing Dov in The Knot Garden rather than Lechmere in Owen Wingrave, and there can surely be no doubt that this was a decisive step in making him the ever more wonderful singer he is today by escaping from the oppressive ambience of Aldeburgh and the shadow of Pears’s highly individual style.

Britten was abnormally sensitive to criticism, and he tended to create an environment sympathetic to himself in which his genius could operate without contradiction. He was antipathetic to new productions of his operas which read them in a different way from his own performances; the reinterpretation of a role created for Pears incurred especial opprobrium, such as Jon Vickers’s Peter Grimes, which brings out qualities in the part which Britten found distasteful. He was vulnerable through his work, and said in response to new kinds of analysis: ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that I must have a very clever subconscious.’ He could rarely joke about his work: his own conducting and piano-playing, particularly as an accompanist, were of the highest order, but the profundity of his art and the dignity of his position did not give him any internal defence against adverse comment. When he was preparing Noyes Fludde in Orford church he learnt that a village faction was opposed to the piece, and was so depressed by this that he could not work for two months afterwards. Such insecurities clearly derive in part from his career and way of life in relation to his very conventional background, and from tensions which were at the root of his adult personality. As his sister says, with regard to a childhood illness: ‘In spite of this, he not only lived a normal life, he lived an abnormal one ...’

By far the most penetrating contributions come from Hans Keller and Donald Mitchell, the editors of the important Commentary on Britten’s work in 1952. Keller is the only person who really approaches the question of Britten’s homosexuality and the constructive role it played in his choice of dramatic subjects. In general, it determined a sympathy with those outside society, and a concern with complicated states of moral innocence, as in Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. Britten seems not to have been interested in esoteric homosexual references or jokes: a rare and so far unobserved example is the text, in Part III of the ‘Spring Symphony’, which is always referred to by commentators as ‘Barnefield’s “When will my May come?” ’ The generally heterosexual implication of the tenor/soprano exchanges in this Part disguises the fact that the Barnfield lines are an extract, starting in midstanza, from ‘The Affectionate Shepherd’, a long Virgilian pastoral that is piquantly homosexual. The ambiguous tonality of the harps at the end of the song is a more typical Britten extension of punning symbolism into musical organisation.

A weakness of Britten’s tendency to diffuse his sexual ‘abnormality’ into other kinds of non-heterosexual dramatic situation is perhaps a readiness to promote the parabolic morality of the drama above its passionate life. Despite the sexual content of Lucretia and Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is only really in his last works, Death in Venice and Phaedra, that Britten opens up the erotic subject – with all the force of obsession. The amazing libidinous volatility of Phaedra, and the baroque violence of the changes of mood and subject within the scena, release a sexual force not before indicated in his work, and rendered the more moving by being set for a voice which can only with difficulty encompass the musical range. And Death in Venice, though symbolically more ramified, and despite the gaucheries of the libretto and the longueurs of the danced action, illumines its subject in music of such rapture and frenzy that it becomes far more centrally about homosexuality than Mann’s novella is.

In Britten and Auden in the Thirties Donald Mitchell relates the conflicts of order and chaos, bohemianism and convention, which underlie Death in Venice to a highly penetrating letter Auden wrote to Britten when Britten and Pears left the chaotic household over which Auden presided in Brooklyn. Auden identified Britten’s need for a cocoon of admiration and an ordered life, and urged the need for new kinds of experience, for pain and damage, if Britten was to develop to his full stature. Like many other interesting things in this book, it is printed in a footnote. The book is a version of Mitchell’s 1979 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and, especially when deprived of the original film and musical illustrations, the form seems unsatisfactory – chatty, untidy and partial. Mitchell’s scholarship is indispensable to students of Britten, as it is to those of Mahler, but his books on both are extremely badly organised: these lectures should have been rewritten to incorporate the important appended material, and expanded to trace the Britten /Auden relationship more thoroughly.

Mitchell is also unforthcoming about sexual matters, about the nature of Auden’s feeling for Britten (which Humphrey Carpenter has now discussed) and the part that might have played in Britten’s intimidation by Auden – already established by a sense of intellectual inferiority and lack of experience. Auden was catalytically inspiring, but embodied forces dangerous to Britten’s self-protective habits. The catalysis made Britten into the finest setter of English there has yet been, but with these skills and sensibilities enriched he had to return to the private place of creativity in which he could have complete control. Perhaps Auden in some way encouraged this too, by creating in For the Time Being a text Britten could not possibly manage in music.

Other features stressed by Mitchell in his very interesting talks (dealing with ‘Our Hunting Fathers’, the film and theatre work, and the songs, culminating in ‘On This Island’) are the 23-year-old’s schooling in descriptive technique and dramatic effect under the exacting schedules of the GPO Film Unit; and the development of his political thought and his pacifism, with precise and fascinating documentation from his diary. In his earliest collaborations with Auden we find the beginnings of the ‘noble anti-militaristic strand in Britten’s art’ (though it is noticeable that the most prominent examples of this, the ‘War Requiem’ and Owen Wingrave, are by no means his most satisfactory compositions). An interest in education and parable is emphasised in relation to the several different media in which Britten was working at the time, and it is Mitchell’s claim that the sum of the Auden/Britten collaborations (including unknown quantities like the Group Theatre scores) is larger than that of Brecht and Weill, and as important in shaping the image of the Thirties. Some instinct suggests that this is not the case, perhaps because of the abstruseness of the texts, the inventiveness of the music, and the distinctness of the English from the European cultural scene – all producing, as well as a memorable quiddity, an abstraction from the public imagination. But the justification of the book lies in the material which it elucidates – both musical and biographical – and the appetite for more elucidation which it creates.