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.

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, by Kenneth Green (1943)

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, by Kenneth Green (1943)

Post-war pride and prejudice
‘The gay life, the word “gay” was not in his vocabulary’, said Pears. ‘He was more interested in the beauty, and therefore the danger, that existed in any relationship between human beings – man and woman, man and myth; the sex didn’t really matter.’ Where Auden had written openly about his sexuality, Britten never said a word about his. ‘One respects this,’ says critic Michael Kennedy ‘but it can’t be evaded, nor can the fact that the puritanical critical establishment made Britten’s homosexuality the scapegoat for all they couldn’t admire in his music.’

Britten’s sexuality, left-wing tendencies, and his ‘defection’ to America were not going to be popular in 1950s Britain. There was plenty of innuendo: ‘Homo sweet homo’ was suggested as the name of his house in Aldeburgh. Thomas Beecham made a joke about Covent Garden performing ‘The Twilight of the Sods – and about time!’ And he disparaged Britten with:’I never comment about the works of struggling young composers.’

While the relevance of Britten’s homosexuality is often exaggerated, Hans Keller talked of ‘its enormous creative advantage’ and that however little Britten may have been alive to it, ‘his psychosexual organisation meant he could discover and musically define new truths’. But few leave a performance of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes feeling they have been the target of some subtle homosexual tract.

Britten wrote it after reading in California in 1942 George Crabbe’s poem The Borough, about a Suffolk fisherman ostracised after a boy apprentice in his charge disappears. Britten became very homesick after reading it, saying: ‘I realised where I belonged and what I lacked. I had become without roots. A central feeling was that of the individual against the crowd with ironic overtones for our [his and Pears’s] own situation. We experienced tremendous tension. It was this which led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is.’

The outsider versus society
Leonard Bernstein’s last recording was the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes. He found in the music ‘something very dark. There are gears grinding and not quite meshing and they make great pain.’ In the Four French Songs, which Britten set while still at school, a mother lies dying inside while her children play games outside. At 14, Britten had discovered the human condition of good and evil, innocence and experience, fantasy and reality which was to haunt him and his music for the rest of his life.

Classic CD magazine, 1994

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