BENJAMIN BRITTEN – (1913 – 1976) YOUNG APOLLO
The year was 1932. By now, aged 19, Ben had won a £50 travelling scholarship on leaving the Royal College and started to look to publish. Not that easy as publishers have to make commercial decisions based on what their crystal ball tells them and what return they are likely to get out of it. Take Mozart. He could not find a publisher for his piano quartets, not because they lacked quality but simply because no one out there wanted to buy the sheet music. It was the OUP who took on publishing Ben’s first opuses and then they suggested he move over to Boosey and Hawkes. His first work after finishing at the RCM was a commission he obtained from the BBC, a setting of poems and carols for a capella boys voices, A Boy Was Born, the title filched by me for my previous instalment. Ben might have relied on a family subsidy but here was a young man, still very adolescent in his outlook, optimistically wanting to earn his keep and go places as a composer when even the most seasoned of composers would need to depend on teaching posts to maintain themselves. Gustav Holst teaching at JAGS and St Pauls Girls School is the most obvious one that comes to mind.
I am not going to comment on each work he wrote but Ben’s opus 2 was a phantasy quartet for oboe and strings which Leon Goosens took up to play at an International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) concert in Florence in 1934. Ben travelled there accompanied by John Pounder, a boyhood friend from Lowestoft. En route he met the conductor Hermann Scherchen and his fifteen year old son Wulff with whom he would form a close friendship three years later. This trip however suddenly ended on Ben receiving a telegram to come home as his father was ill – he had in fact already died. Ben managed to get home in time for the funeral and to compose some of the music for it. His mother was left pretty well off and she shortly moved to fashionable Frinton down the coast where she indulged herself in social activity and her newly acquired interest in Christian Science. For Ben, his father’s death ended home life as he had always known it. He had left Ben a legacy of £100 and he still had a little of his travelling award left. So, further reason to earn his oats.
Ben seems to have had a keen business acumen and possibly this showed quite early. Soon after the oboe quartet he visited his brother who was a prep school teacher in Prestatyn for which Ben wrote a set of children’s songs with piano entitled “Friday Afternoons”, the time when singing took place at the school. He also had the idea of browsing through juvenilia he wrote at 11 and compiled from these his simple symphony for strings and an arrangement for string quartet. With his eye on the opportunity of school performances Ben pressed Boosey and Hawkes to publish before the school year started in September. The Simple Symphony is probably likely to be as good an earner for the Britten Estate as any of his other works.
In looking for a post Ben approached the BBC whose director of music was the legendary Adrian Boult whose conducting Ben described as execrable, an opinion influenced by Frank Bridge cheesed off with his works not getting played. I remember Boult being wonderful to listen to but to watch he was about as exciting as a sack of potatoes. What did transpire was a tip by a BBC official for Ben to go and see Alberto Cavalcanti, a film sound director working for the GPO film unit under its director, John Grierson. The unit produced documentary films intended to be shown in cinema news theatres. Their studio was in Blackheath in an art school at the end of Bennett Park, the cul de sac where Lloyds Bank is situated. On the outside wall is a commemorative plaque. This building later became the dormitory for Christ College where many a tender backside and its tearful owner would woefully recuperate whilst his consenting parents were getting quiet satisfaction as well as value for money for what an English education was providing.
Ben was the Unit’s director of music for about 18 months from May 1935. He was paid £7 per week which was more than a tidy sum as the national average weekly salary was £3.14.0 (£3.70). There were only a limited number of musicians available but with wind machines, sand paper being scraped and recording sound effects backwards Ben was able to bring off some astounding effects. During this time Ben was introduced to Whystan Auden who was teaching in a South Wales preparatory school. He had been to Gresham a little before Ben and now left his job to join the film unit at £3 per week. It was he who wrote the verse commentary for the film, Night Mail, with Ben of course doing the music with 18 players at his disposal. Ben had spent time at Stanmore researching the rhythmic sound of trains. He then had to compose with precision in minutes and seconds to accord with both the edited film and at the same time to fit the rhythm of the verse commentary written by Auden.
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
It was to be the beginning of an association between Britten and Auden which spanned the next seven years. Auden was very much the dominant figure of the two particularly as Ben, at 21, was just beginning to feel his way in the adult world whilst remaining an adolescent in his pursuits. For instance the 14 year old who had set Verlaine and Victor Hugo to song was the same 21 year old who read J M Barrie and spiffing school boy yarns such as Emil and the Detectives. Auden and Christopher Isherwood took Ben under their wing to the Group Theatre where their plays were being produced and for which Ben would write the music. Ben privately admitted an intellectual inferiority complex in their company and being over awed but when it came to matters musical he clearly could stand his ground. His political awareness was also sharpened up with his moving in left wing circles. Ramsay MacDoanld had resigned and Stanley Baldwin was prime minister. Civil war raged in Spain and Ben signed up for the Peace Pledge Union, newly formed by E. M Forster and remained a lifelong member. Some adjudged Auden’s poems too difficult to set to music but Ben succeeded in doing so efforlessly. For the 1936 Norwich Triennial Festival Ben secured a commission to write a work for solo high voice and orchestra entitled “Our Hunting Fathers”. It was his first large scale orchestral work to be published with various poems including two by Auden. Whilst an apparent outcry against the cruel treatment to animals, it was not an animal rights claim but an allusion to the oppression of fascism. The orchestra, the London Phil, found it a difficult work to play and gave Ben a rough time in rehearsal, pouring scorn on it. The work had only two performances and went into cold storage for twenty five years. Fortunately there is a very good recording now by the LPO on its own label.
The 1936 ISCM Festival took place in Barcelona. Alban Berg had just died and his melancholic violin concerto received its first performance. Ben was moved as was another English composer who was there, Lennox Berkeley, ten years older than Ben and who was also a Gresham old boy. The two went together to Mont Juic, a local park, where they heard Catalan dances. Some time a little later they holidayed together in Cornwall writing four orchestral dances, called Mont Juic, based on themes which Ben had noted at the time. For many years they never let on who wrote which but we now know that the first two were by Berkeley and the second two by Ben.
Another friendship struck up at Barcelona was with Peter Burra, a music writer from the Times to whom Ben revealed his homosexual feelings. Burra had been at school with Peter Pears who otherwise has not yet entered into this account. The friendship with Burra was short lived as he was killed a year later in a light aircraft crash. It was through that that Ben came to know Peter when both chanced to meet to sort out Burra’s belongings. They were no more than close friends to start with. Although there were a number of homosexual people in his circle, Ben held back keeping his own relationships platonic. Auden was particularly insistent in what seems like an exercise in control freakery which included sending poems to Ben pressing him to come to terms with his sexuality. It is very likely that Auden himself had hoped for some relationship with Ben. In his diaries Ben had recorded his dichotomy referring to “the sexual thing that I need to get to grips with” and “quel horreur” at entering into a relationship. For Ben, there was the conflict within himself.
In January 1937 Ben’s mother died. She had travelled to London to look after Beth who had had been struck down with a flu. Whilst Beth recovered her mother went down with the virus and suddenly died. Ben was shattered, having now lost both parents within three years before he was 24. He had been particularly attached to his mother and has been described as a Mummy’s boy although in the years since his father’s death he had displayed an adolescent tendency to obstinacy, like they all do, (this is the voice of experience talking). One outcome from this was that Ben inherited a reasonably substantial sum from her estate. His lifestyle had been somewhat nomadic the last five years in staying with his friends, his sisters and flat sharing during which time he had enjoyed the pleasures that London had had to offer a young man off the leash. He now looked round his native Suffolk to find somewhere and came upon an old mill in the village of Snape, six miles inland from Aldeburgh near to the old Maltings which would one day be converted by him into a concert hall. He purchased the mill with his inheritance and had it converted into what appears to be a mélange between an oast house without a cowl on the one hand and a 1930’s homestead as advertised by the Abbey Road Building Society on the other. The first occupant to take up shared residence with Ben was Lennox Berkeley. During their holiday in Cornwall, the two had spoken of their homosexuality but agreed to maintain a strictly platonic relationship. Berkeley appears to have over stepped the arrangement and there followed an immediate cooling by Ben who quit his mill for London and moved in temporarily with Peter Pears. At this time Pears was a singer with the New English Singers.
The big breakthrough for Ben came late in 1937 with the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The Boyd Neel string orchestra had been invited as a visiting orchestra to the Salzburg Festival at short notice. In accepting, Neel, its founder and conductor, had not appreciated that it was expected (which translated into English meant required) that the orchestra would introduce a new British composition. This only became apparent from the official invitation which arrived three months before the event. This posed a knotty problem as most composers could not even manage a fanfare within the time constraints. Neel however had met Ben, seen what work he was doing, seen him composing anywhere and everywhere such as on the corner of a pub table, and approached him to see if he could produce a short work. Ben accepted but even Neel could not believe it when two days later Ben turned up with the completed outline of a work more than half an hour long. It took him a further two weeks to complete its orchestration. Ben had had the idea for it back in 1932 but seems not to have taken it very far. Who knows, he might have kept some sketches! I don’t go in for musical dissection but here I am sorely tempted. After an introduction and the Bridge theme, taken from his second idyll for string quartet, there follow a series of variations or perhaps “genres” might be the word. They include a march the speed of which not even Jesse Owens could have kept up with; a romanza with a sweetness of Mahler at his most Viennese; the aria italiana with a takeoff of a coloratura making impossible high leaps to a mandolin like accompaniment strummed by the middle strings. We then have a Bachian bourée followed by the Wienner Waltzer which may have delighted a Salzburg audience but it seems to owe as much to Ravel as it does to Johann Strauss. A breathless Brittenesque moto perpetuo is succeeded by a funeral march with heavy drum beats – played by double bases; and after a static sounding chant the works ends with a leaping fugue. These variations contain parody, fun and Britten wizardry encased between an opening and closure which bear very dark and ominous shadows characteristic of the 1930’s where even optimism can be portentous. The Frank Bridge Variations were soon to be extensively performed including at the ISCM the following year hosted in London.
With the onset of the Spanish civil war Auden and Isherwood were off to do their bit not for King and Country but for republicanism. Auden had written a poem, Ballad for Heroes which Ben set to music. Ben was a declared pacifist, that is, he did not believe in war as a means of solving political problems and he probably felt a little uncomfortable in the collaboration. He also received a commission from the TUC to write a march, Onward Democracy. He was now settled back in the mill. He had by chance learned that Wulff Scherchen, now 18, had fled Germany and was at Cambridge. Ben invited him to Snape where their close friendship continued. Eventually it was Wullff who was to put a distance between them. This might have been a factor in Ben’s decision to leave for America but during his journey he kept a photo of Wulff on his dressing table and dedicated one of his songs from Les Illuminations to him as he did for Peter whose friendship overlapped that with Wulff.
1938 also saw the composition of the piano concerto, commissioned by the BBC, which was first played at the proms by Ben under Old Timber (Sir Henry Wood). The work is exciting, showy but, for some, exhibits the self confidence of a whizz kid going places, or clever-clever as some began to say. William Walton, was not one of Britten’s close friends but in 1967 he dedicated to Ben his Improvisations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten choosing his theme from this piano concerto. It is a powerful work, underperformed and underrated and, unlike Walton’s Siestas and Sicilianas, has a distinctive Britten-like cold North Sea tang about it
Earlier that year Ben had met Aaron Copland for the first time at the ISCM London Festival. Ben was introduced to El Salon Mexico and Copland to the Frank Bridge Variations. Britten and Tippett were the first British composers to excite him, possibly, according to Howard Pollack in his Copland biography, The Uncommon Man, because they both shared his left wing views and also because they had absorbed American influences. Copland was said to have found English composers stuffy including Lambert and Walton. That’s plain daft. Anyway to judge British composers by how much they had absorbed American influences is as logical as judging German composers by how much they had absorbed Serbo-Croat influences. As to American influences, Mr Pollack should listen to Walton’s Portsmouth Point overture or the last movement of his first symphony whilst Constant Lambert, who was said to be Britain’s answer to George Gershwin, can sound as swampy as Duke Ellington. Ben invited Aaron down to Snape and the two exchanged views on each other’s work. Here were two great composers, getting on like a house on fire and striking up a common musical accord. Yet, here we go again; Pollack attributes this to their common homosexuality. My response to you, Mr Pollack, is contained in a single word which almost rhymes with your surname. What emerged from their meeting is the earliest reference to Ben thinking about a future to be made in America after Copland’s encouraging pitch of the better prospects that would await him there.
So what caused the decision to pack bags and go to America? The usual answer is that Britten and Pears were scurrying away to escape the war and call up. It is not as simple as that and there can be no one answer as Ben hardly knew his own mind. As we have seen, Aaron Copland had painted a picture of affluent success. Ben would have probably known of Korngold’s success with his music for the film, Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn. Ben himself then received an enquiry from Hollywood to see if he could write the music for a film of King Arthur. He must have questioned his own destiny, which way he was going musically. He questioned the power of the BBC and the establishment. Others questioned where he was going including the Times critic regretting what had become of the talented youngster who had written A Boy Was Born. The political side worried him. The Spanish Civil War was lost. Auden and Isherwood had gone there in their idealism, had returned and gone to China and ultimately together left for America in January 1939 urging him to follow, as Europe was finished. At home there was the Munich Crisis after which no-one knew whether there would be a war or not. And if there were to be, Ben, being a pacifist who would object, pictured the prospect of imprisonment. The one person who had mattered to him to hold him back, his mother, was no longer; his friendships were becoming strained. He needed to distance himself from Lennox Berkeley (even though the Atlantic Ocean was rather stretching it a bit) and Wulff Scherchen wanted to distance himself from Ben. His constant support was Peter Pears who would go with him to scout the territory although he, Peter, needed to be back by August. Against that background, the decision was made to go in March 1939. After a farewell party, Ben and Peter entrained to Southampton where, to their surprise, they found Frank and Mrs Bridge there to wish them Bon Voyage. Bridge was apprehensive that he might not see Ben again – he didn’t as he died in 1941 – but he handed Ben a present, his own viola. It was not Brave New World but a brave man taking his chances in the New World.
They were on board the SS Ausonia which was actually taking them to Quebec. Peter was going only to hold Ben’s hand and planned on returning in August. Ben began having doubts on the journey, but then who wouldn’t in the circumstances? On landing there was considerable interest with an immediate commission from CBC (Canadian Radio) for a new work. This turned out to be Young Apollo. It is Britten at his most exuberant yet. Written for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, it demonstrates a verve that leaves one breathless from the first note. It recalls the piano concerto and contains unbelievable glissandos for the piano and the strings alike. Here was someone who had landed in the Americas saying “I can do it your way… but more so”. Strangely he withdrew the work and it was not played until after his death. Michael Oliver suggests that it might have only been the first movement of a projected longer work. There is no evidence of that and perhaps it is safer to assume that Ben sensed that this time he had gone over the top. He and Peter stayed in Canada a month before crossing into the USA at Grand Rapids where, according to Pears in Tony Palmer’s film “A Time There Was”, their relationship changed. They had become and remained an item.
So here they were in the US of A, land of Roosevelt, Clarke Gable and Gene Autrey, the singing cowboy, with an unknown future stretching out. They made their way to New York in order to be near Aaron Copland who was living in Woodstock. It is an odd quirk that Britten in 1939 was beginning to sound like Copland even before Copland was sounding like Copland. It was only at the end of the thirties that Copland moved from a modernist European influenced style to his homespun American persona. Yet apart from El Salon Mexico and the ballet, Billy the Kid, just being published, the works which would bring him popular fame, Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man were not to spring into life until the early half of the forties. Peter and Ben were also able to meet up again with Auden and Isherwood. Those two had always had an on and off relationship and would soon go their separate ways into new pairings.
Ben still had works on the go which he had started in England. Matthew has already introduced Les Illuminations, a song cycle based on eight out of forty two poems written by Rimbaud. These are not always easy to follow in English, let alone French, and were supposedly written by Rimbaud often in a drugged state. Britten seems to have mastered with ease whatever difficulties he might have had of writing in French. In fact, he could be said to be a dab hand, having written Four French Songs when he was 14. The work is written for high voice and strings for the Swiss soprano, Sophie Wyss. She had been the soloist in Our Hunting Fathers and was seen as the Britten interpreter par excellence until Pears later came along. Les Illuminations received its first performance at the Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street in April 1940 with Sophie Wyss the soloist. Its first American performance was two years later with Pears.
He also completed his violin concerto that same year. It is an advance on the piano concerto and was received well in the US. Not so much in the UK where it saw competition with Walton’s 1939 violin concerto written for Heifetz. The BBC were giving airtime to his works but eventually once the war had got going and, succumbing to the conchie objectors, the Beeb imposed a proscriptive embargo on those composers who were not doing their bit and Ben was in the black book. The wave of protest came not only from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells but in the Commons one MP called on the House to strip these people of their citizenship.
Still going back to New York in 1939 everything in the garden was sunny. Ben and Peter became house guests in Amityville, Long Island of Elizabeth Mayer and her doctor husband, she an amateur musician. They were a Jewish family who had left Germany when the Nazis came to power and whom Peter had first met on his earlier visit. It started out as a weekend stay in August but two weeks later Britain and Germany were at war. That put the kybosh on Peter being able to get back as planned and the two got invited back to stay on with the Mayers. Ben was in touch through the consulate to see if they could and should return and was told that he would be more useful if he were to stay. Others were in the same boat (except that they weren’t) caught up, wanting to get back and unable to do so, like John Barbirolli and most notably Arthur Bliss. He had gone to the New York Fair in August for the first performance of his piano concerto and spent three frustrating years separated from his American wife and children who were back home in London.
With the war, money transfers from the UK came to a stop. Although there were occasional performances, the two of them had to think of earning a dime or two. As it happened Ben then chanced across a music group of semi-pro’s in, of all names, Suffolk County in a town called, yes, Southold, where he got a small sum for rehearsing the local orchestra whilst Peter took the choir. It was a pleasant enough existence with Elizabeth playing the role of a substitute mother. Eventually they decided to take their leave, taking up residence in Brooklyn Heights in what was an artistic commune. This was led by Auden with his new partner, Chester Kallman and included George Davis (who would marry Lotte Lenya), Carson McCullers (novelist), Thomas Mann’s son Golo, Louis Macneice, Salvador Dali and the singer Gypsy Rose Lee and others to this glittering array of who’s who in the world of arts. No time for boredom but Ben and Peter would probably have preferred a desert island and from time to time moved back to Amityville for peace.
There followed a commission indirectly according to one source from the Japanese Government for Ben to write a new work to celebrate what was inaccurately calculated to be the 2600th anniversary of the Mikado dynasty. The account has some semblance to the stranger who called upon Mozart to commission a requiem. Except that in this case the stranger was our man in the British Consulate. Would Ben undertake a commission from a foreign government? He could not say which government– it was too hush-hush for the moment. Ben agreed although he did not learn till later that it was the Japanese government. It would be six months more before the commission was confirmed and by that time he was only left with six weeks to produce something. All he had was the incomplete Sinfonia da Requiem on which he was working. In Britten on Music he stated that he went to see the Japanese consul to explain his position and what the work was about and explained the Latin names of the movements. He was assured all was in order. He produced the work, was paid and heard nothing more for six months when the work was rejected as its Christian nature was an insult. Instead he dedicated it to the memory of his parents, what he had probably had in mind in the first place. Now had it been Malcolm Arnold who had received the commission – his first work, Beckus the Dandipratt, was not written till three years later – he would probably have written A Nanky Poo Overture or, Variations on a Theme of Arthur Sullivan and Hirohito would have loved it. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem was given its first performance by the New York Philharmonic under its conductor, John BarbirollBen now became more active in writing more populist works including “John Bunyan”, a collaboration between him and Auden of a two act “operetta”. It was not a success with the critics largely because of the scat words of the text. To all intents and purposes it was a musical and Ben could have continued to make a success in the genre had he pursued it. Thankfully, he didn’t. He also wrote the popular ballets Matinées Musicales and Soirées Musicales based on Rossini delectables.
Other firsts were being produced, his first numbered string quartet, works for the British piano duettists Ethel Bartlett and Robert Robinson which included his Scottish Ballad for four hands; in contrast was a commission from Paul Wittgenstein for the Diversions for left hand and orchestra. Wittgenstein had lost his right arm in the First World War and had commissioned works from Ravel, Richard Strauss and Prokofiev. The Britten would go the same way as the others had. Wittgenstein rejected it and refused further performance.
The turning point for Ben came when he and Peter were in California where they came across a copy of the BBC magazine, “The Listener”, in which there was an article by E M Forster on the eighteenth century poet, George Crabbe who hailed from Aldeburgh, just down the road from Snape, and who had written a long poem called the Borough. Ben had little idea who Crabbe was but he felt a twinge of homesickness. Peter then was able to find a copy of the Borough in an antiquarian bookshop and it was not long before Ben read it especially Letter 22 about an outcast fisherman called Peter Grimes. From there on he would cease talking of settling. Their next visit was to Sergei Koussevitsky, long time conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for a performance by them of the Sinfonia da Requiem. Ben recounted his story of Peter Grimes and on learning that uninterrupted time was needed for such a project, Koussevitsky immediately offered a $1,000 from his foundation for Ben to write Peter Grimes.
Ben was now more than ever keen to return to England whatever the outcome. In April 1942, three years after arriving, Ben and Peter secured a passage on a Swedish ship which took five long weeks, not five days to return. During the voyage he had the time to write two works, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, set to verses written by Auden and A Ceremony of Carols, his delightful work for boys’ voices. Now on returning home he had got something out of his system. He seemed to have found his old self again, the composer who had written A Boy Was Born. He was returning to the Old World, eventually to Suffolk, just as brave as when he left, with the words of Peter Grimes perhaps in mind, “I AM NATIVE AND ROOTED IN THIS LAND”.