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.

Even some of those who recognised his powers would reproach him for his foreign ‘cleverness’ and urge him to behave more like an English composer. Much later he recorded Elgar’s ‘Introduction and Allegro’, and The Dream of Gerontius with Pears, so it might be argued that he allowed himself to be drawn back into the ‘English tradition’. But it seems more likely that he belatedly discovered in Elgar, regardless of where he came from, an originality he had formerly missed, perhaps because it was not advertised by ‘technical ostentation’ – that offence against taste and discipline of which he himself was so often accused. He hadn’t been ready to notice this when flushed with revolt against his gentlemen teachers and examiners at the Royal College – those eminent Renaissance composers. These volumes show that he was from his earliest years an honest and perceptive critic, one who would not often mistake the good for either the bad or the best, or let petulance – certainly one of his personal characteristics – induce him to disparage or neglect excellence in composition or performance. Yet a self-protective egotism was also, and necessarily, at work; he condemned what was not useful to him, and admired whatever he wanted or needed wherever he found it.

There are more volumes to come – this first instalment ends with Grimes in 1945, the composer still in his early thirties – and the one certainty is that they will be enormous. It would be difficult to overpraise the industry of the editors. They worked on some pretty unpromising material, for Britten was frankly not much of a letter-writer. As with most other people, his deepest feelings – for his rather alarming mother, for his American substitute mother Elizabeth Mayer, for his lover Pears – find gauche or commonplace expression. And a great many letters are, not surprisingly but also not thrillingly, about musical business, engagements, fees, commissions, permissions.

Along the way, they do provide incidental evidence of the young composer’s musical ingenuity, industry and discipline, and they also say a little, a very little, of what was going on in his life apart from music, tennis and going to church. But the devastatingly thorough editorial annotations are much more interesting than the text. If Britten went to a concert we are given the programme. If a work of his was played we get a large selection of the reviews. Performers at concerts get scrupulous mini-biographies. Britten spoke sourly of Adrian Boult; the question why he did so is understandably gone into, since Boult had a good record with modern music and even gave some acceptable performances of Britten’s, but it seems that Britten thought Boult had the job that ought to have gone to his friend and teacher Frank Bridge. (His early ‘Variations on a Theme of Bridge’ is a nice combination of originality and discipline, genius and taste.)

Such matters are not without importance. But very little is too unimportant to escape the editors’ research. On 26 July 1931, for instance, when he was 17, Britten went to church in Lowestoft and heard ‘quite a fine sermon’ by the Rev. Thomas Henry Stanley, who was standing in for the incumbent, the Rev. William Reeve. Reeve was away – in case you care, he was in Blankenberghe, Belgium. On August Bank Holiday in that year Britten went to see a show with Paul Robeson in it; a supporting act was ‘a clown’ – this performer, the editors explain, was ‘Clown Argo, who undertook bird and animal impersonations.’ No commentators less deserve the old censure, that they offer explanation where none is needed, and pass silently by the real difficulties. When they don’t know something they say so. It was almost a relief to find a couple of human errors: a blind entry in the index, or the description of the New Yorker as a fortnightly, or the failure to remark that the Klenovsky whose orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor was performed at a Prom on 24 September 1932 under the direction of Sir Henry Wood was Sir Henry Wood.

There is one notable reticence, concerning the allusion to a ‘particularly nasty’ crisis, probably something to do with conscription or a Conscientious Objectors tribunal (Britten and Pears were pacifists of a type the tribunals normally had little time for). Sorting this out involved, we are told, the discomfiture of ‘a very highly-positioned potentate’, who might well have had to resign in consequence. Failure to say who this was may be the result of tact, not ignorance, but if it was tact a tactful note might have said so.

These, be it noted, are ‘selected letters and diaries’ – and they are not all by Britten, for also included are letters by Peter Pears, Mrs Mayer, Auden and many others. The diaries, kept by the composer from 1928 to 1939, are used extensively but not, it seems, exhaustively, for we are given a half-promise that there will be a separate edition of them (though presumably Humphrey Carpenter’s imminent biography will gut them further). Some but not quite all repetitive material is omitted from the letters, as are certain remarks that ‘might cause pain to a living person’. At the request of ‘one correspondent’ some letters are not given in full. Whether these exclusions wholly account for the term ‘selected’ is perhaps doubtful. There may be omissions otherwise motivated. Mitchell’s long and informative Introduction says something about Britten’s earlier love affairs, and is candid enough about the rather awful, yet productive relationship with the mother, and the productive one with the permanent lover. Peter Pears had encouraged Mitchell to print the correspondence between him and Britten along with the rest, but had then withdrawn his sanction, wanting the letters for a book of his own, and also, it is conjectured, fearing that to be seen as simply one of a crowd of Britten’s correspondents would somehow belittle him. If this seems petty, then it is a bit of redundant evidence that great musicians, like most other people, can be petty. Mitchell, who does print some of their correspondence, is an affectionate and discerning admirer of both of them, and rightly stresses not only the solidity of their union, but its virtually incomparable musical importance.

When Britten met Pears he was 23 and already well-known. Of the great quantity of music he produced during the rest of his life a uniquely large proportion was written with a particular voice in mind, the voice of Pears; curiously, we are told, it resembled that of Britten’s mother. In their early years Pears had a successful and independent operatic career, so they were often apart: hence many letters. I remember him as Ferrando in Cosi, a gangling farcical performance which got a lot of laughs; this sign of versatility surprised me, for I had previously associated him only with the Michelangelo Sonnets (the first work written for and dedicated to Pears) and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Britten, who passionately praised both the friend and the voice, and could hardly think of either separately, did not make Pears a good singer, though he may have made him a great one, and was well rewarded for his devotion.

Late in 1944 or early in 1945, I was trying out on poets in Australia the vocal score of the Serenade. Too clever, they said. Showy. Treats the poems as occasions for display. Such suspicion was in those days a spontaneous, normal reaction to Britten and not only in the Antipodes, though there were notable exceptions – a rich, enthusiastic notice of the Serenade by William Glock is reprinted here. But it was more usual to concede that he had genius all right, while perhaps lacking the critics’ own incomparable advantages, their taste and discipline. He had lisped in musical numbers, played the piano marvellously, handled the viola and violin with Mozartian effortlessness, and written commissioned music of many different kinds with daunting ease. Something must surely be wrong. When he was 16, one of his examiners for a scholarship said, ‘I don’t think it’s decent that a public schoolboy of that age should be writing this kind of music’; the examiner was not, the editors go out of their way to assure us, Vaughan Williams. ‘He was full of ideas, his own and others’,’ they said; he was offensively clever. When he was still in his early twenties people started complaining that he didn’t seem to be fulfilling his youthful promise.

Britten was the son of a Lowestoft dentist who provided a milieu of provincial respectability, involving lots of church, tennis and musical evenings and, for the boys, public school. In such a situation moderate talents might flourish; greater ones, perhaps impelled by ambitious mothers, would need to transcend it, as Britten’s did. Yet a certain bourgeois respectability clung to him; he always liked to be what Auden would call ‘comfy’. The bohemian life he knew in the weird Brooklyn establishment presided over by Auden, and shared by Gipsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers and other irregulars, was fun in a way but far from comfy. He hated the mess, preferring the comforts and cossetings he got at Mrs Mayer’s house on Long Island. ‘I can’t live wildly and work!’ His mother’s discipline, confirming Fichte, ensured that he chose work rather than the wild life Auden thought equally important.

Of course Auden was also a hard worker, and had he needed to, Britten could have learned from him that professional artists ought to be able to do many things. Poetry included the mnemonics in Kennedy’s Latin grammar, and cabaret songs and limericks, as well as the heavy stuff; music should have comparable range. Britten said he would ‘maintain strongly that it is the duty of every young composer to write every kind of music – except bad music.’ He wanted to be, and was, a real pro, and he did write almost every sort of music – film, theatre, ballet, cabaret, as well as the heavy stuff.

His dabbling in so many things, and his obvious and appealing gifts, ensured that he would attract other people of talent. He hobnobbed not only with musicians but also with poets and painters, with Curzon and Berkeley and Copland, but also with the likes of Isherwood and William Coldstream – people who did not think it necessarily a criticism to call somebody clever. Marjorie Fass, an intelligent and sympathetic observer, thought the influence of frivolous friends, incompatibly brilliant, was harmful; it was suggested that the composer was too impressionable for his own good. His strong attachment to Auden may be evidence of this weakness. But he could be tough as well as petulant when it came to shaking people off, and in time he shook off Auden.

Mitchell is an authority on this doomed relationship. Auden, who enjoyed offering people advice about their lives as well as their art, kept telling Britten, in poems as well as letters, to change his life.

Underneath the abject willow,
Lover, sigh no more.

I have seen letters of his to a painter quite like the one he sent Britten in January 1942: ‘it is your denial and evasion of the demands of disorder that is responsible for your attacks of ill-health, i.e. your sickness is your substitute for the Bohemian.’ Perhaps more usefully, Auden warns Britten against his practice of playing ‘the lovable talented little boy’, avoiding risk and adventure. He urges him to break out, to have a sexual life. ‘VIVE LA MUSIQUE. A bas les femmes,’ he telegraphed in 1938. He wanted the composer to ‘unfold his desolation’, and instructed him in the techniques of seduction.

Auden was important in other ways. To Britten, words, whether Italian, French or English, spontaneously suggested music. Some of the words provided by Auden might well have looked unpromising, but he set them anyway. He enthusiastically accepted Auden’s rather unsatisfactory book for Paul Bunyan, and it seemed certain that they would do much more together. Yet it was, perhaps obscurely, necessary that the link with Auden should be broken. Their last collaborative work was the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, composed on the return voyage to England in 1942, a beautiful work with a rather ostentatiously clever, rather obscure libretto. Thereafter Britten cooled.

He was irritated by The Rake’s Progress, and Auden, it seems, was mildly disparaging about Billy Budd. The final break came, according to Stephen Spender, when Auden wrote criticising some particular setting of words – Mitchell thinks it was a passage from Gloriana – and had his letter returned to him torn to pieces. He was very upset. But Britten was remorseless – he even dropped people with whom he had no quarrel because they were friends of Auden. He had grown ever more sensitive to criticism, and from Auden it was intolerable.

This touchiness was perhaps an outcome of his sense of himself as an outsider. Mitchell discusses the various pressures which tended to make him so – his homosexuality, his pacifism, his (Audenesque) ‘flight’ to America just before the war. He also remarks that ‘a frieze of boys runs through the diaries, rather like the procession of girls along the front at Balbec.’ He mentions Britten’s deep interest in young children, his anxieties concerning their sexual corruption. And there was, in a time when attitudes to such conduct were far less liberal than they have become, the open secret of his relationship with Pears. But however he may have felt, nobody actually did treat him like Peter Grimes. He did have to put up with wartime sneers about his absence in the US, and after his return, about his pacifism. It may now seem surprising that there were many people, including musicians, who seemed to think he could serve the community better or more honourably as a private soldier or a rear gunner than by writing Peter Grimes.

Life in those years was generally difficult, probably no more so for Britten than most other people, though it could no doubt be said that wartime conditions were especially unkind to people who were often ill, as he was. Really his problems are interesting only because we are still preoccupied with genius, and with the preoccupation of genius with itself. Britten certainly knew how to foster his. Mitchell more than once points out that the germ of a piece might be nurtured in secret for years. One notices, for instance, the first mention, years before the opera, of The Turn of the Screw – a diary note made when he was deeply impressed by a dramatised version of the book on the radio, though apparently unaware that it was properly a story, not a play.

He absorbed and remembered James’s tale, randomly encountered, as he absorbed whatever he wanted from other composers. Despite his eclecticism he has a voice, various but almost always instantly recognisable and admirable. One can hardly think otherwise, listening to the Illuminations, the Serenade, the Hardy settings, The Turn of the Screw, even, with due respect, the Sea Interludes. And, though Auden would have deplored the whole enterprise, it seems legitimate to ask what sort of person it was who developed this voice. Later it sang a long, rich duet with that of Peter Pears. We are told that Britten was miserable when writing the ballet Prince of the Pagodas – his longest orchestral score – because Pears, having no part in it, refused to be interested: it was not a duet. More pettiness, and we could no doubt say these men were silly, as Auden said Yeats was silly, and as he himself was silly, too. But their gifts survived it all.