Tuesday, September 24, 2013


On a list I frequent I’ve noticed the following recently: Rage about a British reviewer's dismissal of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera (uncompleted), Turandot. Then there appeared the following statement: “Moses and Aaron (sic, of course, it’s Aron), sophisticated? Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron (sic) has as much Sophistication of composition as a breakfast cereal code ring of the 1950s. This is true of most of the later works (anything after Verklärte Nacht) of Schoenberg’s ‘musical’ output.” [orthography: the poster's]. And then there was this in a discussion of Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera: “I saw (heard) Falstaff live only once. Never again! Falstaff may be Verdi's critics darling but not the audience's The beautiful last act Tenor aria is the only thing I remember from that performance.” 

There was this morsel about Pierre Boulez:  “I find Pierre Boulez a pointless dinosaur, whose music represents a now-dead phase in Western music which will be the subject of academic theses in future generations, as people struggle to comprehend HOW our culture made such a massive wrong turn after World War II and forced mostly cacophony onto the listening public, which, 70 years later, is still turning its back in favor of music which attempts to connect emotionally. It just baffles me how the musical world took his acoustic drivel so seriously for so many years.”

And then there was this from a reigning expert who always claims Papal infallibility about intonation and it’s always Papal Bull, since he is always wrong – clearly he doesn’t know up from down and doesn’t read music or play an instrument. But here’s this savant about Turandot: “Great voices can make the opera libretti less distasteful than might otherwise be the case.  For many people, myself very emphatically included, great music making trumps all other facets of the operatic experience.”

Now, one can ask right away, how does one get from great voices to great music making? Luciano Pavarotti had a great voice, no question about it – where was the music making? He couldn’t count, keep time or shape a phrase. It was a wonderful sound. Now, that’s not a sin and I can understand his success and his pride, especially because the silvery timbre lasted a long time. But as a musician, as an interpreter, as a stylist outside of a few roles he’d had drummed into his dense head when he was young, he was a pig. It can be argued that there are many singers with anywhere from very good voices to a smaller number who really do have great vocal endowments who are clueless bores when it comes to music -- if one loves music. And that’s the issue. Opera lovers in general know and care very little about music; they have no love for it. They have somewhere between ten and twenty old fashioned and arguably worthless works that they have imprinted on their dinosaur brains and they listen mainly to the highlights, and especially to the high notes, usually while doing other things.

There may be time eventually to get to the fetish divas, and the really great singers but today I am thinking with love of Jan de Gaetani who one of the savants shrugged off as a “teacher at Eastman”. She sang the often remarkable new music of her time, for some of which she had to invent a technique (Ancient Voices of Children by George Crumb – still alive at 84 and living around the corner from me -- is certainly one of the great vocal records ever made by anybody and, of course, it’s also a wonderful piece). Crumb’s piece requires all the things the obsessed claim that Maria Callas could do – intense, wide ranging coloratura, a vast array of colors but in a style entirely its own – a combination of challenges Callas never had to meet – or chose to meet. The 19th century divas the nuts compared Callas to (stupidly; we’ll never know how they sounded) , all sang NEW MUSIC. They backed living composers, they took risks with those composers, and like De Gaetani, though not like Callas, they had to invent techniques to cope with the rapidly changing requirements of, in their cases, early romanticism. De Gaetani also finds the profound feeling in Crumb’s Apparition, collected on a record with some Ives Songs. Her contribution to Elliott Carter’s Syringa is phenomenal (and like Crumb’s piece it is a gorgeous work).

But she had wide tastes. De Gaetani was able to find the style and the sound for Charles Ives, hers is one of the best Ives’ song collections, she was a revelation in Stephen Foster (another remarkable recording) but she could imbue her timbre with the right richness for more conventional repertoire; her records of Brahms, Debussy and Ravel, for example. And she could find the right sound for those “tuneless” Schoenberg compositions, The Book of the Hanging Gardens, and other worthless works by poor Arnold, such as Pierrot Lunaire, and record one of the most impressive accounts of Erwartung. She could give Russian music both its deep melancholy and its elegance and she even turned her hand to Cole Porter, accompanied by that great American musician, Leo Smit. That may not be “Broadway” at its most colorful but they find and relish exactly what is interesting musically in the work of a composer who chose “show music” (of his tuneful era) but who was well trained (he even did a stint in Vincent D’indy’s Scola Cantorum), and who had a remarkable, witty, often ‘inside’ musical style sounding under those irresistible lyrics.

(De Gaetani --Arnold Schönberg, Das schöne Beet betracht ich mir im harren -- from the Book of the Hanging Gardens)

De Gaetani actually made music. She had a fine voice, and an outstanding technique, but her objective was always to crawl inside the notes and make them live. Her performances actually live the way I believe music is meant to live; she doesn’t distort -- either because she thinks that’s dramatic or to show off. She brings one, I think, into contact with something real that exists as more than a kind of white noise.

Despite stereo and the recent resurgence of “surround sound”, her records made live and with a simple microphone are totally three dimensional.

Music really doesn’t matter to everyone or perhaps even at all, one could spend a lot of time at the end of a life, wondering what really does matter outside of one’s own next breath, and come to think of it, that doesn’t matter much either. But for us strangers here, bombarded by all sorts of particles we can’t quite apprehend and may never understand, uncertain about what is real, if anything is, someone like De Gaetani and as she would have been the first to insist, the composers she worked so hard to understand and then express, matter simply by being a lifeline for those who are drowning in the suffocating banality of what most of us do. That ends for everybody, its purpose unclear, perhaps non existent. When she sings for a little while outside of someone's life, there really is something else, even if it will vanish. And if one’s brain has given one the wherewithal to hear it and make sense of it (and just how we hear and process sound, and just how different every individual is from all others in processing what is presented as sound remain topics of research) making music is making life.

Enrico Caruso did the same thing.

(Caruso invests a trifle with a lifetime of longing, "Cor 'ngrato" written for him in 1911)

Different times, different circumstances, certainly, and he was a tenor! Yet he too sang mostly new music, in fact his command of the new works of his time by a still vibrant Italian school is what made him famous. As his records demonstrate (and the series on Naxos is the most complete to date, thanks to Ward Marston) he sang a huge number of new songs, many written for him. Like de Gaetani he didn’t live long, but he transcends death on record, life in all of its misery and joy and complexity and strangeness sounds in his voice. Unlike de Gaetani he sang a lot of junk, but he has a way of getting the most out of it. He made music, as she did; and the reasons that his many imitators failed was not only because they didn’t understand how he had produced his tone, and in forcing, lost their voices, but worse, because they could not begin to live in music as he did.

Jan reminds me of another singer almost forgotten now, Helga Pilarczyk, who delivered great performances in the then "newer" music (though of course most of this music wasn’t new at all). She made phenomenal recordings such as Erwartung which she recorded three times, with Robert Craft, Pierre Boulez and best of all with the mad but often thrilling Hermann Scherchen in 1960. This has just been reissued on the Wergo label. Her handling of the vocal style, a feverish but somehow lyrical intensity, is amazing. She is utterly riveting, more than virtually anyone else. She achieves what one would think is impossible, a singing, sometimes intoning, with incredible certainty of touch. She manages to seem utterly spontaneous and completely authoritative. She and Scherchen really understand the rhetoric of the piece and clearly adore it.

In Pierrot Lunaire she pitches lower than most anybody who has recorded it, and it’s possible to feel she declaims too much, closing vowels too quickly to avoid a sense of “singing”. The first recording of Pierrot with Schoenberg conducting and Erika Stiedry-Wagner reciting took place early in the fall of 1940. Schoenberg sent a letter to Fritz and Erika Stiedry suggesting the speaking part should be returned to the "light, ironical, satirical tone in which the piece was actually conceived"Pilarczyk didn't get that memo but her verbal authority is immense. But one must respect De Gaetani, Yvonne Minton with Boulez (one of the most precise renderings of the “vocal line”) and Christine Schaefer, also with Boulez, a very complete reading – though Pilarczyk -- if arguably on the extreme side of what should be done with this score vocally -- has a feverish conviction I don’t hear elsewhere.

In Erwartung singers in an operatic style, Jessye Norman with Pierre Boulez or James Levine, or Alexandra Marc (with the late Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting with great nuance and flexibility) are far more ordinary. Anja Silja, with her sometime husband, Cristoph Von Dohnanyi, appended to his well considered account of Wozzeck is authoritative but that crazy spontaneity is not there. I think her recording of Pierrot Lunaire with Robert Craft is freer, reminding one that Igor Stravinsky found hearing this music “The most prescient confrontation in my life.“

(Helga Pilarczyk, snippet from Pierrot Lunaire, with Boulez)

Pilarczyk also made two of the great Berg records, one of the Wozzeck Suite, and another of the Lulu Suite. They were both conducted by Antal Dorati. In the Wozzeck Suite, her handling of the Bible reading scene has a heart break, a longing, an intensity way beyond what Maria Callas could do with easier music. Pilarczyk handles the song speech with an amazing musicality; she never loses the musical sense that needs to be there, touching pitches and actually phrasing musically while speaking, and when she erupts into singing (the heart breaking cries of “Herr Gott! Herr Gott!” or later “Heiland!”) the effect is electric. This too is living in music, giving voice to an ageless suffering. In the Lulu Suite she handles the killer writing well, and does the Countess Geschwitz’ Liebestod to Lulu with tremendous force. Pilarczyk can be found in a Decca box (the Wozzeck Suite is also appended to Dorati’s reading of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle). The obsessed can find a complete (that is uncompleted) Lulu with Pilarczyk from 1966 on tape (I’m not sure this “pirate” has ever been pressed onto a record or CD, why bother when there is another Turandot to get out?).

To return to the start of this blog, this mixture of think piece and review set off the hounds

Generally these kinds of things are useless. The attackers of this writer are all -- what are the words I'm searching for? Opera lovers, perhaps? Puccini certainly was condemned as much as Giuseppe Verdi, and I think as unjustly. Verdi finally began to gain some acceptance both with time and gradually with a greater attention to what he had actually written as opposed to what was often heard (and still is, sadly). The great three volume examination of his works by Julien Budden, the respect of a composer such as Benjamin Britten, the ever changing Igor Stravinsky finally coming down on his side, and the persistence of prominent reviewers such as Andrew Porter and the sympathy of a great critic such as late Charles Rosen moved Verdi away from the hurdy-gurdy and into at least the vestibule of the Pantheon.

Puccini though has had a struggle. Joseph Kerman gained a certain fame by calling Tosca “a shabby little shocker”, in his influential, dubious book, Opera as Drama (far from as rigorously scholarly as it should have been and full of bizarre and suspect personal idiosyncrasies – one doesn’t know much about Professor Kerman, but somehow one shouldn’t know that he hates sex). In fact, he’s kinder about Puccini than he is about Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and a host of others – he also poorly informed about Strauss’ work, and although his book was first published in 1956, there was enough Britten by then for his being as poorly informed about his work as he is to be a serious fault. 

As a youngster, I remember reading a then popular writer on music called B. H. Hagen saying some music was “trash, like the work of Ravel and Puccini.” But I loved Ravel at the time, since I was trying to be a pianist and had seen how well made and beautiful his music was. No one with a mind holds such a low opinion of Ravel today, though I suppose one could hear arguments on where he stands on the Parthenon of musical geniuses (higher than some, lower than others, perhaps and really does that sort of ranking really matter? More important is that some idiot, able to call L’enfant et le sortilèges or the Piano Concertos or the string quartet or Le tombeau de Couperin “trash” was actually taken seriously).

But Puccini’s intellectual supporters such as the father of Andrew Lloyd Webber (hence the quote from The Girl of the Golden West in The Phantom of the Opera), and more importantly, the brilliant book by the Schönberg disciple, Mosco Carner, did not gain traction. Budden’s book on Puccini, written in illness, did not have the same force of his work on Verdi. And Puccini’s early operas were so over familiar, often poorly performed, that he was an easy target. Also, an old fashioned but still potent objection to opera as a form can be made about his operas among many others: composers must compose to librettos that can be grossly inferior writing on all levels, and even when effective taken on their own terms, are now stuck in a dramaturgy that has become meaningless and silly.

Can music transcend foolish situations and clumsy words? Well, Wagner’s music (or quite a lot of it) does. One could argue that Beethoven was dealing with an obvious and none too believable “rescue play”, but with Leonore/Fidelio’s great cry of “Abscheulicher!” about the monstrous Pizarro and the wonderful scene that ensues, the opera does begin to make the surface of the plot less important. Beethoven also gives life to timeless scenes such as the prisoners, let out of their cells, seeing sunlight, breathing good air. It doesn’t matter really that the “boy” Fidelio usually looks like a curvaceous lady in early middle age, and Florestan, chained and trapped in a deep dungeon, is perfectly visible and clearly well fed when he cries out, “God! It’s dark in here!!” That’s opera, perhaps; silly. But in the right hands, it is compelling, moving. Even when a chubby Leonore gives an obese Florestan (and I’ve seen that more often than not), a small bit of bread and he thanks her, it is terribly moving, simply because of the way the composer writes it.

Puccini was not Beethoven of course; he was a commercial composer, probably one of the richest in history, turning out theatrically manipulative works that superficially move an audience but in which nothing important is at stake (freedom, decency, justice, mercy are all at stake in Fidelio; it’s hard to find those themes in Puccini). And it was held against him that a lot of his music was hard to resist. As the great Schönberg pupil by then a formidable teacher, Leonard Stein, said to me at Cal Arts, “sometimes one just has to draw the curtains, dim the lights and listen to Suor Angelica!” Yet it hardly seems fair to call the result trash, or even cynical.

La Boheme may not concern itself with the great themes of life on this earth, but the story, told swiftly and without grandiosity, remains resonant in many ways, and Puccini’s economy, rightness of touch, melodic fecundity all make a great effect. It may be harder to make a case for Madame Butterfly or Manon Lescaut. But Butterfly is beautifully worked out musically, its use of authentic Japanese themes in a well argued symphonic manner with much subtlety of interaction between motifs, gives the story a sense of inevitability and genuine emotional power. Manon Lescaut is more uneven than Massenet’s opera, Manon, but the freshness of its lyricism is seductive and Puccini’s take on the story (it was probably more his than the nine librettists he had) seems less cynical than the Frenchman’s.

And one can go through the canon and find much that works, sometimes against the odds. The Girl of the Golden West has a ridiculous plot, hilarious words (“Amici fate largo e salute Mister Ashby del’ agenzia Wells Fargo” is one, “Dimmi tuo nome!” “Dick” “Per sempre, Dick!” is another. And of course wags have always wondered about a hero called Dick, whose last name is --- Johnson!).

And yet, something else is going on in the opera as Puccini’s inventive and unexpected musical treatment suggests. Here music does transcend the silliness of the story, for all three leading characters are looking for a frequently mentioned “road to redemption”. Their circumstances are loneliness, emotional emptiness, lives trapped in bitterness and guilt. From the tender, halting “love duet” in act one, more a shy, indirect investigation by tenor and soprano as to whether they really can understand one another beyond feeling a sexual attraction, to the tenor’s screams of remorse when he has to confess that he is a thief while hiding in her house in act two, to the desperate sorrow of the minors as The Girl and the tenor ride off hoping to find redemption through love – she has been the only beauty, the only hope in their lives and she will vanish into the mountains, in effect die in their lives. The final words are sung by the minors and the opera doesn’t resolve musically, “mai piu” they sing, “never more”.

However silly the Wild West locale and the pidgin English and the unfortunate association The Girl’s name, “Minnie” was to acquire, there is something profound there and it’s in the music. Who of us hasn't looked for redemption at some point, in some way, which of us is ever sure that we can find it, and who of us has never known profound aloneness? (The eerie tritones that introduce the mountains at the start of act three personalize desolation as much as anything I can think of in music.)

(Steber is The Girl, riding to save her love, Dick -- Del Monaco -- from being hanged. The Sheriff, Rance -- Guelfi -- tries to stop her speaking -- but she reminds the minors of all she's done for them, one by one they give in, free Dick and he and The Girl ride off -- one of the saddest "happy endings" ever! The conductor is the great Mitropoulos; live from Florence, 1954)

Operas can be paradoxes, silly yet great. One can find wonderful things in La Rondine, shrugged off by many, but with a marvelous second act, and in The Trittico, particularly perhaps in the endlessly inventive and genuinely funny Gianni Schicchi.

But Turandot is hopeless nonsense, two hideous characters unredeemed in any way (Puccini lived for two years but could only come up with a folder of often illegible and contradictory sketches for the final duet he knew had to make sense of the whole sado-masochistic charade – he knew he couldn’t justify such monsters. His musical gift was waning. There is much imitation of the then novel present. Even that worthless (!) Schönberg shows up for a few seconds in act one when the ‘ghost voices” are heard, Puccini had journeyed to hear Pierrot Lunaire conducted by the composer in Florence. There is a touch of the Emperor’s Court from Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol. But the “Puccini” magic never materializes. Even the two tenor arias, the second one, “Let no one sleep” “Nessun dorma” that our pal, Pavarotti, turned into an anthem for everything from bowling contests to bowel movements are derivative, they are school of Lehar, who would have written them better.

But everyone gets at least one clunker, and Turandot was Puccini’s – not a bad record at all.

I’ve been understanding of Puccini; but how is it that the great music of Schönberg and Boulez is still so easy to condemn by the supposedly arts aware? Neither composer is new, neither is strange, there is beauty to be found in their work and emotion, too. The haters never really listened to it, yet I doubt they “got” Tosca the first time through, or the tenth time. I wonder often if the impossibility of calling a halt to these stupid battles about long dead issues means really that “serious music” is actually dead. That those who have great need of a backward, idiotic populace have won by segmenting populations into powerless cliques who will simply die away. It can be worth it to fight but it’s frightening to see how closed these minds are, how small their worlds are, how easily they accept clichés, how happily they embrace their ignorance. This is our world: idiotic comic book movies, endless sequels, “Reality TV" with its glorification of stupidity, horrendous pop music, gun culture, a mainstream news media without substance or honor, and a rapidly increasing population of the proudly uneducated. These morons are part of a zombie culture. Yes, these are no win battles, but what is the worth of winning? Doesn't it seem that music has already lost?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Benjamin Britten: THE BITTER WITHY

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 Palestine, 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.

(at school)

Who was Benjamin Britten? Who knows? He was born November 22, 1913, died December 4, 1976Yes, 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 England, 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 Russia. 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?

 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, Frank Bridge 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).

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). London 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 England.

When he and Peter Pears, still just friends, fled to America, 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.

(Britten and Pears)

They returned to potential trouble as “conchies” in England. 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…

Britten’s only serious teacher was Frank Bridge, 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 Germany 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.)

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 London in America). 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.

His smaller operas, The Church Parables, starting with Curlew River, 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 New Jersey, or encounter a small company shaking a fist at Let’s Make an Opera/The Little Sweep in Berkeley, with sophisticated people coming over from 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 London 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. 

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 London 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.

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 Japan is expert.

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.

We can’t “know” Ben, but he could reveal something. His music isn’t the whole story and clears up no mysteries. But in his final opera, Death in Venice, there is not the sarcastic irony of Mann, nor is there the titillation to be had in the beautiful Visconti movie, there is a devastating longing and an annihilating loneliness. Aschenbach dies of cholera, painted and roughed, his hair dyed, watching his adored Tadzio walk out into the endless sea. It’s redemption of sorts, but an icy one. Death’s music is hard, chilly, high and inhuman. Aschenbach is vouchsafed a second of serenity in the city known as La Serenissima, but has never lived, never been loved, never expressed his true self. Admired and wealthy, he is at the moment of his death the lonely fraud who gives the lie to all that fame. “Just live!” is the command to all creatures at first awareness on this planet; Aschenbach who has written and analyzed and created, has not lived, but very late he has learned how glorious life is, and how fleeting. It’s not Mann; it is Britten. You may weep at poor Mimi’s death, or at Madame Butterfly’s seppuku but I think this is the saddest finale I know of in opera. And maybe that is the closest we can come to the “real” Ben Britten.