Archive for February 6th, 2014

The Enemy Within Music’s Peter Pan

c1949 - At Crag HouseAs Benjamin Britten’s brilliant song cycles are released complete for the first time, Neil Evans looks back at the personal letters and diaries of a composer obsessed with keeping his youth and innocence

No composer this century has been more obsessed with keeping his childhood alive within him than Benjamin Britten. ‘Britten was anguished. He had a load of guilt, which he tried to hide’, says conductor and friend Raymond Leppard. ‘When Ben was at a party he would emanate distress, and soon everybody in the room would be aware of it – Ben had demons in him.’ The victim of strange premonitions and nightmares, Britten was tortured by man’s inhumanity to man and by the power of evil at loose in the world.

At the heart of his five orchestral song cycles which span his life from 1928 to 1976, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. The most disturbing song is Blake’s ‘O Rose, thou art sick’ from the Serenade: the invisible worm destroying the life of the beautiful, pure rose. The cycles, now complete on Collins Classics, betray this obsession with innocence and its place in the modern world. His biographer Donald Mitchell has talked of an ‘intensely solitary spirit, a troubled, despairing visionary, an artist haunted by night, by sleep, by mortality, a creator very aware of the destructive appetite – the ever-hungry beast in the jungle – that feeds on virtue and grace’.

The critic Hans Keller wrote that his music is a violent repressive counterforce, while his lifelong interpreter and lover Sir Peter Pears said ‘Ben thought decent behaviour and manners were part of a fine life. Gracious living, if you like.’ His middle-class outlook ensured while he was sympathetic with the socialist vision of Auden and other 1930s trendies, Britten was shocked by the promiscuity and bohemianism of the New York ‘commune’ he had joined to escape war.

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