Topping Entertainment

Frank Kermode

  • Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten edited by John Evans
    Faber, 576 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23883 5

A two-volume collection of Britten’s letters and diaries, entitled Letters from a Life and edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, appeared in 1991, and its first volume covers the same period as this new collection; but there was plenty of work for the new editor, John Evans. The diaries were begun when Britten was 15 and ended, rather abruptly, when he was 25. They were written in pocket diaries, the earlier entries mostly fitting into the space allowed by the format, four days per page. As his interests widened Britten progressed to a page a day.

Since he apparently had a touch of dyslexia and was not much good at punctuation the diaries are hard to read. Many entries, especially when they concern his schooldays, are repetitive, and some simply lack interest, so the editors cut a good deal that treats of games and other trivialities. Evans compensates for these lacunae by reproducing the selected items exactly, and by devoting much labour to identifying the very large number of people and institutions with whom the talent of the composer brought him into contact, as well as whatever music he was listening to on the radio or on records or studying on scores. His more general reading was desultory and gives the editor little trouble. It is of interest, however, that he was, as a schoolboy, greatly taken with Henry James’s ‘impressive but terribly eerie’ story The Turn of the Screw.

The presentation of the notes in this volume is so perverse that it is far from easy to find the information they contain. The sections of the book devoted to notes and the editor’s admirable introductions are scattered about the book. There is no earthly reason for this. One is not asking for a revolution: footnotes on the relevant page and endnotes gathered together in some accessible place would do. When discoverable the annotation is well done, and will reward older readers at least with the slightly melancholy pleasure of spotting the ghosts of once famous musicians flitting through the pages. Others may admire the young man’s assumption that conventional middle-class manners and pleasures are compatible with an uninterrupted dedication to the craft of music.

Andrew Motion has said that what he wants from a biography is information about commonplace matters, such as haircuts, so he will approve the young Britten’s assiduity in recording his. Every three weeks or so he is off to Whiteley’s in London, or failing that to a lesser barber in Lowestoft, or a Friseur in Salzburg. Whether he would have agreed that this information would be needed in a future biography it’s impossible to guess, but like almost everything in these diaries it does suggest that the writer assumed a future in which everything knowable might conceivably require to be known. So we know how passionately he devoted himself to tennis, which he would play fiercely for hours at a time, and that he switched to badminton in the winter, and was all year round keen on winning. His dismay at Bunny Austin’s defeat at Wimbledon is compensated by his joy at belatedly discovering squash. Nor did he scorn team games (cricket, football). It is barely possible not to wonder how he could combine these healthy interests with his pleasure in musical comedies, his exhausting schedule of rehearsal and practice (piano, viola) and his steady daily task of writing music; he had reached his Opus 100 by the time he was 14. At his prep school he was captain of cricket and victor ludorum, and at Gresham’s he is said to have spent as much time in the nets and at ping pong as in the music room playing piano duets, trios and quartets with his fortunate fellow pupils. He was also quite often sick, being especially vulnerable to ‘beastly colds’.

About music Britten had, from very early days, strong opinions, to which the privacy of the diary permitted strong expression. Conductors were vulnerable, Sir Adrian Boult being a favourite target: ‘terrible execrable conductor’; ‘Orchestra bad all evening; Boult worse’; ‘disgraceful perf. under A. Boult’; ‘Boult as slow, dull & ignorant as is his wont’ and so on, until we discover with surprise that Boult shared some of Britten’s enthusiasms and had conducted Berg’s Lyric Suite and extracts from Lulu. Moreover in 1937 Boult gave the first London performance of Britten’s song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (Opus 8 in what must have been a revised numbering). It was an important work; indeed he sometimes called it his Opus 1. He had conducted it himself the previous year. Britten is mildly disparaging about Boult’s performance but must have been delighted to see the cycle becoming part of a middle-of-the-way concert programme, with a conductor who was at least well known, and he finally admits that Boult did it ‘very creditably’ and that he was ‘awfully pleased with it’.

Other conductors, especially if English like Sir Henry Wood, here called a ‘vandal’, fared little better. Yet international celebrity was not a guarantee: Casals is ‘dull’, Oskar Fried lost his temper and tried to frighten the orchestra as it performed the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. Beecham is ‘irresponsible’, others such as Vaughan Williams and most English composers, Elgar in particular, provided numerous examples of ‘incompetant’ conducting and playing; most of the rest, always excepting his teacher Frank Bridge, have fallible technique. Bernard van Dieren (who fails to achieve a mention of any sort in the notes) is ‘puerile’. Bliss provides ‘unoriginal piffle’. The first complete performance of Walton’s Symphony in November 1935 is ‘a great tragedy for English music. Last hope of W. gone now – this is a conventional work, reactionary in the extreme & dull to a degree.’ Among the dead masters Beethoven is adored, especially for Fidelio and the Missa Solemnis. Listening to Berlioz, the young man makes a nice distinction: the Symphonie Fantastique ‘isn’t much good as music’ but it’s ‘topping entertainment’.

When he was at the Royal College Britten had easy access to London concerts, including the Proms and Covent Garden, and he commented freely on the repertoire. Tristan, especially with Melchior and Leider in the cast, is wonderful; so is the canon in the first act of Fidelio, and so are Otello and Falstaff, and Figaro and the Meistersinger and Hansel and Gretel. Brahms, however, missed out on opera and indeed on everything; he remains utterly detestable. Sibelius is ‘beyond me’; and Britten is ‘not educated enough’ for Byrd. Bruckner is ‘frantically boring’. As time passes, even his beloved teacher Frank Bridge is found to be ‘a bit too obvious’. This could not be said of Erwartung, which defeats him, though Stravinsky’s Sacre does not.

Britten seems to have been skilled in finding music on European radio stations, but the reception could be bad, with much interference and fading. He also took an interest in records, but died before they achieved their more serviceable modern forms. Technology has gone on so fast that it is hard to believe a composer so manifestly our contemporary should have lacked equipment we take for granted. But on the whole one feels that his interest in music was always so professional that he is unlikely to have been bothered about inferior means of reproduction. He seems to have enjoyed writing scraps of music of exactly prescribed length, as he did for the Auden Post Office script, Night Mail, and, at much the same time, incidental music for a production of Timon of Athens.

His practised facility paid off; he began to make money. Since he was almost unbelievably hard-working he was not prevented by commercial work from getting on with at least some of the music he really wanted to write, which included the brilliant Les Illuminations, a Rimbaud song cycle begun in England and finished in America; the period of the diaries now suddenly ended. And somewhere about this time Britten was able to deepen his interest in the music of Alban Berg. At a festival in Barcelona, where he played his own Suite for Violin and Piano (Opus 6) with Antonio Brosa, he attended the premiere of Berg’s Violin Concerto, which, along with Wozzeck and the Lyric Suite, were to be the most revered of his modern masterpieces. On 24 December 1935 the diary notes Berg’s death. The news ‘makes me very miserable as I feel he is one of the most important men writing today. And we could do with many successors to Wozzeck, Lulu & Lyric Suite. A very great man.’

In the mid-1930s it was hardly possible to have no interest in politics, and the diaries begin, though without signs of strong commitment, to reflect such an interest, with references to Spain and the policies of the British government there and in Europe generally. Britten’s sympathies were more humanitarian and pacifist than socialist; they were on the left, but without much heat, anti-imperialist, as his remarks on Elgar’s First Symphony make plain: ‘Only in Imperialist England would such a work be tolerated.’

Britten was seeing a good many excitingly gifted people: film-makers like Grierson and Cavalcanti, William Coldstream, Isherwood and, most forcibly, Auden. Mitchell and Reed commented on the alteration in Britten’s emotional life at this time, and Evans does not avoid the subject. Auden had worked closely with the younger man and seriously advised him, in letters and poems, to come to terms with his homosexuality: ‘Underneath the abject willow,/ Lover, sulk no more’ was a poem intended to point the composer in the right direction, but although he included his setting of that poem in Our Hunting Fathers it seems that Britten was slow to respond. He felt something like awe when he contemplated Auden’s terrifying brain, but he was slow to change his habits, even when tempted into the Jermyn Street Turkish Baths by Isherwood or into a Parisian brothel by a sinister attendant at the Folies Bergère. Britten preferred the sentimental pleasures provided by the Sängerknaben of Vienna. He saw a ‘grossly sentimental & sloppy’ film about them: ‘the combination of the gorgeous singing, the Vienna element & the lovely little boys wins me over completely.’ Yet there was evidently some kind of crisis, partly political (he worried about the war in Spain and there is even a fleeting allusion to his reading Marx) and partly amorous.

When he began work on Les Illuminations Britten was infatuated with Wulff Scherchen. Five blank pages in the diary suggest trouble. Wulff, the son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, was 17 and studying English at Cambridge. Britten was 24 and this was his first gay love. For the best account of it Evans sends us to John Bridcot’s Britten’s Children. It seems that Wulff was ousted not by a rival lover but by a close friend, Peter Pears. They sailed off to America together, and Pears took possession of Les Illuminations, originally dedicated at least in part to Wulff; and before long the union of Pears and Britten ensured that the abject willow no longer had a place in their lives.

It is useless to wonder at the ordinariness of exceptionally gifted lives. You may just suppose, with Auden, that the great one is fundamentally the same as the rest of us, that ‘love made him weep his pints like you and me,’ and that he had his hair cut at Whiteley’s whenever he could, and that whatever else of importance seemed to be happening to him, even if it was a beautiful performance of his new song cycle, was exactly what strikes you as characteristic of your own less gifted career. But it may occur to an editor to say something more at the end of his own wearying task, and Evans says it in his fashion, by commemorating Britten’s future achievements as founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, with a career as an opera composer comparable in scope to those of Puccini and Strauss; yet of a modest family, the son of a dentist in an East Anglian fishing town … It might still be argued, however, that it has been from such a background, more usually thought of as comfortably middle-class, that most exceptionally gifted careers have derived.