That is the second tune from one of Britten’s last works, Suite on English Folk Tunes. Although the lyrics aren’t set, they are an old vernacular Christmas carol. The withy is the willow tree, which rots from within. This is the last stanza:
Then He says to His Mother: “Oh, the withy! Oh, the withy!
The bitter withy that causes me to smart, to smart,
Oh, the withy, it shall be the very first tree
That perishes at the heart!”
(Britten in his parents' garden)
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked. The person being interrogated by Pilate was a poor Jew from
, who would have only spoken Aramaic. Pilate would have spoken Greek and of course, Latin. The accused, whose name was Yeshu (that is Joshua in Hebrew and Jesus in Greek), wouldn’t have understood, any more than Pilate would have understood him. And would the Prefect of Judea have even met a rough Jew accused of leading a dreary little rebellion? And was Pilate, a crude, cruel soldier at heart, have been given to “philosophical” questions? Not likely. It shows how we humans proceed. We make things up. We have to: we put ten words in a given sequence on a page – and that is not reality, it’s not even how reality happens. What is truth? There’s no such thing. Palestine
Who was Benjamin Britten? Who knows? He was born
November 22, 1913, died December 4, 1976. Yes, a large number of people
met Ben in one way or another. (Presumably) a lot of people (relatively) heard
poor Yeshu preach or incite rebellion, or do a little of both. Maybe he had a
bag a magic tricks to get their attention, and since he was free lance,
anything that might entice a drachma or two from those who responded was a good
idea. But we don’t have much idea of who he was either. The writing about Yeshu
has him manifesting himself in various ways. Ben Britten, likewise, manifested
himself in various personas. Most people settled for one, perhaps knowing a
little about another. But he was famous and biographies MUST be written.
Humphrey Carpenter wrote the first big biography of Britten and talked to many witnesses who knew him in different ways. (Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, written in 1992). Now that the centenary is underway there is a new big book by Paul Kildea, (Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, Penguin Global, published this July.)
Kildea is anti-Carpenter. Carpenter had many documents available to him and used them, Kildea has more documents made available more recently including a vast number of letters that Britten wrote (these have been published in separate, expensive volumes).
Carpenter has an “old fashioned style”; he is expansive and likes the anecdote, the short character sketch and repeating gossip. He knew of a certain Britten, but he speaks to others who knew someone different by that name: younger, say; as a conductor; as a sometime friend or collaborator; as a combination of atoms and elements they found detestable. Some of those people only knew a label: queer, and their story of Britten contained their feelings about queer people, hateful sinners, the lot; or fundamentally sad and lost; or trivial -- “That homosexual stuff was really silly,” says the late conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras in the documentary, Britten’s Children (based on the book by John Bridcut). He got into serious trouble with Britten for making a joke about there always being “kids” about.
But some thought heroic a good word. Britten lived in what for all intents and purposes was a marriage with the tenor, Peter Pears, for thirty five years, more or less openly in
, where homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were criminal until 1967 and men so accused frequently went to jail. (But Britten hated the word gay, according to Pears in the sappy documentary produced by Tony Palmer called A Time there was.) Britten also disliked gay couples, queeny jokes, camp and effeminate behavior. One of the crazy “reviewers” at Amazon faults Kildea for not mentioning that Ben was bisexual. That goes to an opinion still large in the world that homosexuals are less than human and must be somehow not wholly and utterly “that way” -- we need look no further than a Mr. Putin of England . There is no evidence whatever that Britten was ever sexually intimate with a woman. In fact in his diary, as edited by John Evans,
Britten writes that he found the naked female body, “disgusting”. But perhaps a
later generation of queer would have recognized an internalized homophobia in
Ben; or perhaps Ben was stuck emotionally and sexually at the age of eleven? Russia
But some thought heroic a good word. Britten lived in what for all intents and purposes was a marriage with the tenor, Peter Pears, for thirty five years, more or less openly in
Kildea has a more “modern” style, telegraphic. “Supporting characters” are dealt with in a sentence (even those who according to Carpenter were crucial to the composer for periods of time). He is light on hearsay and offers fewer details about the mechanics of how Britten managed to compose so much while in his earlier days, touring with Pears and running the English Opera Company and The Aldeburgh Festival (both founded by composer and tenor to promote Britten’s work).
His main label for Britten is a man absolutely of the 20th century, of difficult times where the world continuously changed rapidly and radically and technology triumphed. His Britten started his career in the Depression, as the political situation in the world deteriorated. Right after he graduated from the Royal College of Music, a fantastically precocious but sheltered and provincial twenty year old, Britten entered the circle of the great poet, Wysten Auden. This was a left leaning, Bohemian group of people, many of them homosexuals such as Auden and his close friend and sometime collaborator, Christopher Isherwood, who also befriended Britten (judging from the diary, Britten set Auden's poems but much preferred Isherwood's company). Auden got Britten his first jobs -- writing the music for leftist documentaries (Carpenter says it was Britten’s private composition teacher,
who got him the first job), but insisted that the young composer read and think beyond music, understand politics and his own sexuality. As a result, Britten became two of the most unpopular things one could be at the time: a pacifist and a homosexual. (He had already told his older brother of his “inclinations” but it was the acceptance of Auden’s group and the examples there of devoted couples of both sexes that eventually brought Britten “out” – according to Carpenter. Kildea seems to think that it was Auden’s nagging and Isherwood's example that got Britten “experimenting” with males). Frank Bridge
Auden and Isherwood later became among Britten’s more famous “corpses”. According to his early friend and librettist, Eric Crozier, Britten warned him that one day he would be a corpse, dead to the composer. Though Crozier was invaluable, Britten turned on him for no obvious reason as they completed Billy Budd. Kildea thinks Crozier exaggerated out of sour grapes, and Britten did stay loyal to a small group of people throughout his life, but the list of the discarded was long, reasons for their “demise” were often unclear, and Ben could be cruel.
Kildea goes into a lot of detail about the discouraging musical life Britten faced (it may be the most interesting part of his book).
was a backwater musically with self promoting conductors such as Sir Thomas Beecham and “Flash” Sargent (Sir Malcolm), rough and ready orchestras, wildly underpaid, seriously under rehearsed, and all dedicated to the most conservative repertory, the classics given ramshackle, inaccurate performances. The “new works” that were performed were short, pandered to a dull, unsophisticated audience, often were in a “folk style” that Britten both hated and thought amateurish. There was no interest in the new music being written on the continent or in experiment; radio, though a source of modest income for musicians, was in its infancy in London . England
When he and Peter Pears, still just friends, fled to
, hoping for a land of opportunity they found much the same. It was in LA that Ben read The Borough by George Crabbe and with the encouragement of Pears (by then his lover) started thinking of it as an opera. America
(Britten and Pears)
They returned to potential trouble as “conchies” in
. Both were able to call in influential allies and were let off with a slap on the wrist. Michael Tippett, the great composer, eight years Britten’s senior, went to jail where he met Britten and Pears by turning pages for one of the recitals they were “condemned” to give in prisons as part of their punishment. They became and more or less remained friends, although Tippett did call Peter Grimes “English verismo”, which he did not mean as high praise. When he was dying, Ben felt Sir Michael had over taken him, after years of obscurity and derision, becoming popular with the always desired “younger people” and with much of his music, including his operas, being recorded by Phillips. One wonders where Sir Michael (who lived until 1998) stands today. Many of the recordings are available, often in cheap reissues, and the music is as tremendous and eccentric as ever; but the huge vogue for his symphonies has ended, he never made the Metropolitan Opera… England
Britten’s only serious teacher was
, a full fledged professional composer with a powerful technique and a passionate interest in the “new” music. They met through Britten’s piano teacher when he was 13. Bridge was stunned by the amount of interesting music the boy had written and agreed to teach him, demanding the highest level of clarity and control. “I still feel I haven’t come up to his technical standards,” Britten averred in 1963. Both Carpenter and Kildea shrug him off. At one point it looked like Ben could travel to Frank Bridge and work with Alban Berg, whose music he worshiped, though he knew it only from score. According to Carpenter, Bridge told Britten’s parents that Berg was a notorious homosexual and would seduce young Ben; according to Kildea nobody knew much about Berg but being English of that era they assumed the worst and the consensus reached was that Ben was too young to be on his own. (Berg, of course, was a rampaging heterosexual.) Germany
Ben’s composition teacher at RCM, John Ireland, who didn’t have private money or a generous patron, a typical professional, exhausted himself taking every engagement he could, no matter how soul destroying. In the wider culture, there was a glorification of the talented amateur, the gifted hobbyist, a feeling that there was something unseemly about those who identified themselves as professionals and expected to be respected, and worse, paid. Benjamin Britten, a middle class boy from an undistinguished family in the provinces faced a steep mountain to climb.
Stardom is another label. Britten died world famous and wealthy, as that most impossible thing in the 20th century, a composer of operas. By his last few years, seven of his full length operas, Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Death in Venice, were being produced internationally and often. Almost all of Britten’s work had been recorded, composer conducting or playing the piano, and heavily promoted by a major firm, Decca (for many years known as
in London ). That those recordings were so well made, widely distributed and taken so seriously was in itself a tribute to his success; most are still in print. America
His smaller operas, The Church Parables, starting with
, were also done widely. His operas for children – there were many – showed up in surprising places. One might see the amusing Noye’s Flood in suburban Curlew River , or encounter a small company shaking a fist at Let’s Make an Opera/The Little Sweep in New Jersey , with sophisticated people coming over from Berkeley . San Francisco
And all this has continued. Even his opera for television, not liked by many people when new, Owen Wingrave, is being mounted in theaters, and it’s a rare opera workshop in conservatory or University that hasn’t done several of the smaller works. One of Britten’s big bombs, the coronation opera for Elizabeth II, Gloriana, has been rehabilitated, recorded and released on DVD, seen not as a limp biscuit but as a throw back to the grand operas of yore.
But questions have been raised (from the beginning) about Britten – not about his virtuosity -- but about his career path. Carpenter tends to make Sir Peter Pears the villain: all of Britten’s operas were chosen because they had an important (usually starring) role for this tenor with an odd voice and a distinctive style (according to Carpenter, one of Britten’s friends in his childhood, described Pears as sounding just like Britten’s worshipful mother, and Britten’s sister, Beth, concurred!). Most of his great song cycles were written for Pears. Did Pears have some unholy hold on Britten? Before Pears, young Britten composed in record time a remarkable work for small orchestra called Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. Early in his relationship with Pears, Britten wrote a Berg besotted but tremendously effective orchestral piece called Sinfonia da Requiem. A little later, he created the irresistible The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. But thereafter, most of his non-operatic works were for tenor alone or with additional voices (the Spring Symphony not only has a trio of soloists and big chorus, but boys’ chorus).
Later, for Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian cellist (who Kildea claims became a Pears substitute, not sexually – though he doesn’t believe there was much of a sexual connection between Pears and Britten after the mid-fifties – but as muse and chief believer) there was a Cello Symphony (asked about it in an interview near its world premiere, Pears sniffed, “I haven’t heard it”), and there were piano and violin concerti, much revised, and quite a lot of chamber music, especially after his devastating operation to replace a defective valve in his heart. But always there were operas, written with an odd tenor voice in mind. Of course there was the highly promoted War Requiem for tenor, baritone, massive orchestra, chamber orchestra, chorus – and boys – but didn’t Britten thereby become a sort of ceremonial composer, the kind of composer he affected to despise, such as Elgar? (This became one of the best selling classical recordings of its time.)
Carpenter and others blame Pears for manipulating Britten into so much vocal work and into keeping his style for large theater works accessible.
Kildea is less interested in this aspect of their relationship and more in Pears as a manipulative, sometimes hurtful “power behind the throne”, self seeking with a strong control on their ventures into production. The late Robert Tear, a tenor younger than Pears, who was taken into the circle for a time, describes in his book, Tear Here, the atmosphere around Britten as a “royal court”. Pears was chief intriguer and Lord High Executioner. Nothing happened without Britten’s consent, but that was informed by Pears relaying everything from his own perspective (jealous of his position and worried about aging, he made war on Tear but not before the latter was witness to some ugly scenes – Tear’s is another view of Britten, very different in feel from either biographer, and since he was an employee who needed the jobs, arguably more “authentic”.) However, Tear was axed by the enraged composer. His camping up the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia (a solo part) to relieve tension backstage was caught by Britten and that was that.
Kildea documents Pears’ sexual promiscuity, quite memorably describing the “cruising” scene in
during World War Two. Despite the laws, and the undercover police, a city jammed with horny young men became a kind of paradise for the easily aroused, in which group Kildea includes Pears. Whatever their pre or post war notions of homosexuality, these young fellows found that “puffs” were easy, safe, good for dinner and a tip, and after all, pleasure is pleasure. As Pears became famous in his own right he booked incessant tours, leaving Britten alone by the sea. They fought a lot, sometimes bitterly, but it was Britten who always gave in. “I know that Peter is sometimes unfaithful,” Kildea quotes one of his still living sources about a confidence of Ben’s, “but as long as I don’t know the particulars I overlook it” Kildea notes that Pears booked an American tour in the last month of the composer’s life, fully aware that he could die at any time. “He died in my arms,” Pears says sweetly in A Time there Was. Barely, might be Kildea’s response. London
Kildea claims that during Britten’s operation to replace a heart valve the surgeon discovered that he was suffering from tertiary syphilis. This made news. Pears would have infected Britten. Kildea, in one sentence, mentions a doctor who is skeptical; suggesting that with all of the blood tests Britten would have had in his illnesses, a serious venereal disease would have been detected. Kildea isn’t convinced and yet – is this another example of fictionalizing a life? (Articles challenging this diagnosis have been written).
For a kinder view of Pears (though it’s not a whitewash) one can read Christopher Headington's biography (he also wrote a mild biography of Britten). Nor do all the letters support an unequivocal reading of Pears as a bad influence. Thus we see story telling in place, for every fairy tale needs an evil queen.
Both Carpenter and Kildea offer readable analyses of the music, though neither is as compendious as Peter Evans in The Music of Benjamin Britten (University of Minnesota Press). Carpenter seems to me to be stronger on the operas, more skeptical about the later ones. Britten suffered the usual fate of someone who has an enormous early triumph (he was 31 when Peter Grimes, produced against heavy odds, took
by storm, having an almost incredible success), subsequent works were found wanting in some way. It’s true that Peter Grimes has a sweeping intensity, a creative abandon that carries its own electricity. It doesn’t much matter – as Kildea avers -- that the story doesn’t make complete sense, that aside from Peter Grimes, the characters are stereotypes --- the opera, or perhaps it is mostly Britten’s music -- grabs a listener by the throat and won’t let go. London
Britten certainly comes close to that power in Billy Budd, more so in its revision than in its original version, and surely he was allowed a delicious comic romp, Albert Herring. But it wasn’t until The Turn of the Screw, nine years after Peter Grimes and much smaller, using a different musical vocabulary and style, that the same intensity is reached, and its libretto is better. But after Screw, the operas are sometimes unconvincing, though they are always beautifully made. It’s only with Death in Venice, written against a tough deadline (Britten’s operation was looming), that he again approaches the emotional power of Peter Grimes, though with some miscalculations he would have corrected had he had the strength after the operation.
Kildea is something of a cheerleader, even raving about that piece of well made twaddle, Owen Wingrave. But he is very strong on what he has conducted, the many works for choir, the orchestral pieces – it’s good to read high praise for the once dismissed The Cello Symphony, a work I adore -- but Kildea does not make the connection of certain themes and harmonic gestures there with Death in Venice. He is also a compelling advocate for the often overlooked chamber music.
Then there is Britten’s pederasty. Both biographers acknowledge it, though typically, Carpenter goes into far more detail about each of the boys Britten “fell in love” with, including their parents’ reactions and the degree of gossip each involvement generated.
Kildea spends only a short time and focuses mostly on David Hemmings (who was to become a movie star as an adult, famous for Blow Up by Antonioni), the creator of the role of Miles in The Turn of the Screw. Hemmings, 10 when he met the composer, gave reportedly an astonishing performance (he is wonderful on the stunning recording). He plays the haunted boy – haunted either by a real ghost, the dead pervert Quint, or the insane governess, who might be making the whole thing up. Hemmings lived with Britten by the sea in Aldeburgh where the entire company of Turn of the Screw learned and interpreted the opera as Britten completed it. Everyone detested Hemmings. He was ten going on forty; nasty, manipulative and cruel. But Britten’s adoration was so intense it shocked the company, even those used to his crushes. They saw “their Hemmings”, a sly brat; transform into “Ben’s David” an angel of sweetness and eternal vulnerability, with just a light brush of sexual allure.
Though there’s no evidence that Britten behaved inappropriately with any of “his boys” and Hemmings went through the rest of his life denying that anything improper had happened even when he and Ben shared a bed. There were those who didn’t believe him. Pears was one, it seems. “I frightened Peter,” Hemmings says, somewhat mysteriously in Britten’s Children. According to Kildea, Hemmings was the first person to come between them, creating a rift only resolved gradually and with difficulty. Whether or not Pears was certain that Britten had “made free” with Hemmings, as Quint (the part Pears created) is said to have “made free” with young Miles in an early draft of the libretto, he had suddenly seen the danger of Britten’s attachments. A manipulative con artist like Hemmings could easily (perhaps) have taken advantage of Ben’s susceptibilities, regardless of the composer’s iron self discipline. “Eros is in the air,” says Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, as this prim, heterosexual intellectual, unable to curb his obsession with the boy Tadzio, understands that the erotic always and everywhere will not be denied or controlled. A scandal would have destroyed Britten and Pears with him, wiped out all they had achieved.
No such scandal ever happened. In one version of the fiction that was Benjamin Britten (for who will ever know for certain save the relative few involved?) he was completely innocent of anything but an intense response to certain boys that stopped well short of the erotic. In another version of that fiction, perhaps, now and then, Ben “made free” with a willing lad or two, and no one the wiser. In dealing with anyone’s life, one can never know for certain – anything -- really. We have evidence of Ben’s enormous talent and will to create, right up to his death, when he could barely lift his arms. Beyond that…?
Of the two biographies Kildea’s is the tougher minded and more rigorously sourced – that syphilis claim aside. His precise reckoning of Britten’s earnings year to year is fascinating and so is his relating Britten’s public persona to the politics of his time, both of England and of the British musical establishment where Britten was the subject of quiet loathing and various plots, most ineffective (the worst was the Arts Council, the then new arts subsidy board, killing the recording of the world premiere of Peter Grimes. On the committee then was another famous composer, Sir William Walton. Though they cordially despised one another’s work, he and Ben remained friends superficially. But Walton got in quite a blow). Kildea’s tracing of the world tour Britten and Pears took, and the tremendous impact the music of
Bali made on the composer (it shows up in many of his later works) and the force of the Noh dramas they saw in is expert. Japan
But Carpenter’s book is like a novel by Dickens. Britten’s life unfolds with enormous energy, an unpredictable version of “Great Expectations”, starting with a very provincial boy with accent to match, his obsessed mother, unshakably convinced she had given birth to at least the equal of J. S. Bach. There are colorful and crazy characters, coincidences and contrivances, tremendous successes and occasional disasters, villains and angels (Ben was both depending on the situation), the blessings of the queen, her mother, even her reportedly philistine consort, with dark detours but true love, however hedged, triumphing eventually. All met with the intonations and impeccable rounded vowels of the aristocracy that Ben adopted with fame. I’ve enjoyed re-reading it. Of course it’s no truer to Britten than Kildea’s tidier and colder work. The public force of the person, when he chose, the private grief and strangeness, the remarkable drive to create against even death itself – none of those things can be caught in prose, or in deeds and contracts, or in pictures and poses.
Thirty eight years on from his death, Britten is still celebrated, early work is still uncovered, performed and recorded, failures are reconsidered. No other English composer of the 20th century has fared so well (except, ironically, Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose work Britten detested, and who he didn’t like personally, despite or perhaps because “Rafe” admitted Britten to the RCM when he was 16, awarded him a scholarship and at school and importantly, later, did him kindnesses and favors.). And one might argue that RVW, born before Tristan and Isolde was finished, always, perforce, kept one large foot in Victorian England.