Benjamin Britten (2) – A Boy Was Born


Genius is a rare gift which lands very infrequently out of nowhere and emerging in the most unlikely of places.   Such a genius, a boy, was born in the Suffolk town of Lowestoft on 22nd November 1913, St Cecilia’s Day as it happens, the patroness of music and church music.   The parents of this newly born were not yet to know that it was a genius which had arrived in their midst. They were Robert Britten, a local dentist and his wife Edith who was a reasonably talented amateur singer. The boy was named Edward Benjamin Britten but to the family he was Beni. The Brittens at that time already had three children, Barbara aged 11, Robert aged 6 and Beth aged 4. Beni was unexpected according to his mother; an accident waiting to happen but a fortunate one as it turned out.


They were a fairly well to do middle class family, although at the time even doctors were not regarded as high in the middle class social order and dentists were well beneath them in the rankings.

 Beni’s siblings displayed no particular musical talent. He himself was introduced at age 4 by his mother both to the piano and notation and he was soon able to pick out tunes and note them down. By the time he was 10 he had composed over a hundred works (800 according to unreliable sources in Wikipaedia) which he stored away and catalogued with opus numbers. It was his sister Beth who recalled in a television film that the realization dawned on her that Beni was a possible prodigy. Apart from his mother and piano teacher he was to all intents and purposes self informed, learning from Steiner’s musical manual and reading scores. They had no radio or gramophone in the house and Beni would acquire his knowledge of a work from playing piano versions of the music, especially Beethoven and later Brahms. At age 7 he started piano lessons with Miss Jennie Astle, a friend of his mother and a teacher in his local prep school, and continued under her throughout his prep school years until he went on to Greshams School at 13. His mother saw to it that he received favoured access to the piano over his brother and the girls. Apparently or apocryphally people were known to stop outside the Britten house just to listen in wonder to this boy practising away and perhaps to cite his example to their own children.

 Later when he was 10 he started taking viola lessons. It was the viola he was to regard as his instrument and here he was keeping good company following the precedent set by Mozart, then Beethoven and also Schubert. The viola is not an instrument from which to acquire virtuosic attraction. It is self effacing but, being central in the middle of the strings, an observation point for a composer or performer to learn what is going on around and about. His teacher was another local, Audrey Alston who had been a professional quartet player and had contact with others in the profession, including Frank Bridge, also a viola player. Thinking about it, Ben had no great virtuosi teaching him. One so often hears of one great pianist having studied with another great maestro. Clifford Curzon with Schnabel, Imogen Cooper with Curzon. For good TV entertainment, you can see Lang Lang receiving a master class from Barenboim. Later, when at the Royal College of Music, young Britten, then 17, studied piano, It was under the Australian composer, Arthur Benjamin, best remembered for his composition for four hands, Jamaican Rumba, but not someone whose name rings out as one of the great pianists.

 One wonders where did Britten get it from, his performing skills,. He had no ambition to be a performing matinee idol or an evening one. He had little time with his studying and composing to keep his piano technique constantly in trim. He expressed self doubts as to his ability to be the soloist even for his own piano concerto in the 1939 proms. Britten certainly had his showy spell in making his name in the late thirties and during his three years in America which would give rise for some critics describing him as clever-clever. Actually he would then have been about the same age as Beethoven was when he went from Bonn to Vienna where he took part in showy concourses and piano duals. The fact is that Britten eschewed the limelight of being a virtuoso professional performer. There has been no shortage of great performers. People can queue up all night if they wish to get tickets to hear – no, to see, – the Horowiz’s and the like in the belief that what they hear will be interpretations and sounds never before attained, which they themselves will have an ability to distinguish even though half of them will go on to cough away during the performance without actually appreciating that they are ruining for everyone else the very thing they have paid through the nose to go and see in the first place. Britten usually partnered another performer such as Menuhin, Rostropovitch or Curzon or otherwise singers such as Pears or Ferrier. One almost felt when he played as if it were the composer himself playing, which in fact it was. It was Benjamin Britten…in the guise of Mozart or Schubert, almost like some compositional descendant. No great showy flurries came from him, never a circus act to bring the house down, but a simple display of quiet intensity which was just… music.

 Returning to young Beni, his first school was South Lodge which was just down the road from the Britten house in Lowestoft where he started when he was 9. Bang next to the sea, it surely prepared him for Peter Grimes! It was a prep school largely for boarders whose parents could deposit them there. In the case of Britten minor – his brother Rob was already there – he was a day boy but his timetable was designed for boarders, 7.30 am to 8.00 pm. when only then was he free for his compositional studies after he got home. He always claimed that he worked best when under pressure with little time to spare. South Lodge which was owned by a Captain Sewell who had seen service in the Great War sounds a little like something out of To Serve Them All My Days. There were some thirty pupils spanning some three years and Ben fitted in well despite his musical quirkiness. He could hold his own if it came to fisticuffs and excelled at cricket, eventually becoming vice captain. He did well at maths and brought great credit to the school on attaining, at 11, intermediate grades of the RAM and RCM with 95 marks out of 99. For his last term he  was appointed school captain.

 Discipline was somewhat traditional and at times imposed by cane which Sewell would administer on the boys’ bare bottoms. Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Britten spends some time pondering whether that would have resulted in some form of sexual interference but there is no evidence of this from other contemporaries and we shall never know. All in all, South Lodge reminds me of Christ College at St Germans Place in Blackheath which was the last school in the country to use the cane and chose go out of business rather than submit to change. Their headmaster and bursar tried to justify to me their cane culture on the grounds that it was what the parents of their boys, mostly from Africa and Asia, wanted.

 At about the time of his going to South Lodge, the ten year old Britten was taken by his Miss Alston to a concert at the Norwich Triennial Festival where Britten first heard live orchestral music. He was knocked sideways by the orchestral suite, The Sea, by Frank Bridge. This was a romantic work dating from 1911. Bridge was commissioned to write a new work for the next festival set for 1927. Entitled Enter Spring, it was a more modern work nodding more towards Debussy than the English rustic school. On both occasions Bridge stayed as a guest with Miss Alston. She again took Ben along, now 13. Her object was not only for him to hear the music but for her to seek to introduce him to Bridge. Bridge himself was not particularly keen on meeting yet again some promising pupil but he could hardly turn down a request from his own host. Just as well because within10 minutes of meeting Ben, he had made up his mind that this clearly brilliant child needed expert training. Although he had never sought to take on any other pupil, he wanted Ben to study with him in London on a one to one basis apart from piano tuition to be given by Harold Samuel. Plans were already in place for Ben to go to Greshams, a public school in Holt because it gave a small bursary for music.   A family decision was therefore made under the more restraining influence of Ben’s father that Ben would go to Greshams, but in the meantime could travel up to the Bridges’ Kensington flat to spend one day at a time with Bridge and stay overnight with one of his sisters both of whom were living in London. Arrangements were also made with Greshams that Ben would be allowed time out for similar excursions.

 Bridge’s teaching played an important part in Britten’s musical development. He was born in 1879 and with his broad brimmed hat and long hair looked like the archetypal Bohemian. In his Sussex country cottage he and Mrs Bridge lived alongside Marjorie Fass, an amateur musician and painter in what appeared to the composer, Howard Ferguson, to be a ménage à trois – and here I am not referring to playing piano trios. As a composer, Bridge was not a hot favourite with the public compared to his contemporaries. He did not give theoretical teaching to Ben. What he did was to emphasize to him that he should know the timbre of each instrument, what it could do and to question himself as to why he had written any passage in a particular way. More generally he emphasized the need for the composer to understand himself, a difficult prospect for a thirteen year old to achieve. Bridge had no sense of time passing and spent all day without a break until Mrs Bridge would interrupt to point out to her husband that the boy should have a rest for half an hour. These lessons could leave Ben close to tears. He would remain devoted to Bridge all his life. It was soon after this meeting that Ben would write the incredible Four French Songs.

 Boarding at Greshams did not turn out to be an entirely happy experience for Ben. His relationship with Walter Greatorex, head of music there, did not get off particularly well with Greatorex churlishly saying “so you are the person who knows Stravinsky” – Ben had not in fact yet heard any Stravinsky – and then proceeding to criticize the boy’s piano technique. In all probability Ben was already ahead of him and said just what he thought of Greatorex’s technique in a letter home to his mother. Michael Oliver in his book suggests that Greatorex felt resentment at this boy being taught by others. Still, they had to get on and it was Greatorex, at a school concert, who played the piano in a bagatelle for piano trio written by Ben who himself played the viola part. The school itself was said to be easy going and liberal. Joining the school cadet force was not compulsory as in most public schools and Ben opted out straight away. Bullying (they didn’t actually have dormitories but single cells to sleep in) was like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays (tossing the victim in a sheet) during which Ben fainted. He spent time in the sanatorium to escape the worst of bullying whilst finding time to compose there. His letters home, expressed in almost oedipal terms, evidenced how unhappy he was. Ben did not wish to take the route of higher education and then on to university which Bridge recommended but his parents wanted him at least to take his school certificate.

 It turned out that there was an annual competition at the Royal College of Music where the one winning student would be granted a place and in 1930, without having yet taken school cert, Ben submitted some of his works. He was invited to sit the three hour written examination which Ben said he completed in twenty minutes before handing in his paper! His mother thought that he must have failed but he was recalled that afternoon for an interview before a panel consisting of Vaughan Williams, John Ireland and S P Waddington and was then confirmed the winner of the competition. “What is a middle class English public schoolboy doing, writing music like that?” Vaughan Williams is supposed to have commented. Ben wanted to leave Greshams immediately without awaiting the result of his school certificate. In fact, to his disbelief, he was to gain one pass and five credits.

 The RCM was a conservative institution where Ben, not yet 17 mind, made few friends, an exception being the Welsh composer Grace Williams. He lived with his sister Beth but also found lodgings where he could practise the piano to the annoyance of his fellow tenants. He now was to study the piano with Arthur Benjamin and composition with John Ireland, just one lesson a week, not a strenuous timetable. Ireland was invariably late for lessons and sometimes failed to turn up at all. Yet when it came to teaching he would be more rigorous than Bridge, whom he did not like and disparaged for not having taught Britten anything. Ben, always a fastidious person and who did not care for swearing, found Ireland as slovenly and his house in Chelsea in a squalid state. On one occasion Ben had to wait there all day for his lesson and when Ireland did turn up he was drunk and proceeded to urinate on the floor. The world which did open up for Ben however was being able to go to concerts, ballet, opera and theatre. He began to think about going to Vienna to study with Alban Berg. As far as the RCM was concerned this was anti-Christ. Schoenberg and Berg were beyond the pale of musical decency. After all Elgar was still alive for God’s sake. Even Mrs Britten advised Ben against as she considered Berg would be a bad influence – maybe she was a Eurosceptic at heart – but her objection might have been more concerned with moral, as opposed to musical, influences. Humphrey Carter suggests she would have been conscious of Ben’s possible homosexual susceptibilities. It was undoubtedly Berg’s influence which was behind Britten’s sinfonietta for ten instruments to which he decided to accord his opus number one and which he dedicated to Frank Bridge. Matthew illustrated this to us in his first lecture of the series. From then on Benjamin Britten found himself in the big wide world looking to make his living and his future as a composer.