BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976) – NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD.
When Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears returned to England in May 1942 they were probably a little uncertain as to what to expect. They had been tagged and tarred with W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood for cowardly avoidance of service; Ben for thriving on a culture which he had not the courage to defend and a truly back handed pernicious compliment from the editor of the Musical Times of “having saved one’s art and one’s skin at the cost of failure to do one’s duty.” However they were welcomed home with little apparent antagonism with Peter obtaining concert and operatic work which would separate them for long periods. Neither was confronted with the threat they had feared of imprisonment. Both obtained absolute exemption from war service, Pears’ work being regarded as a contribution to public morale. To begin with, the mill at Snape was occupied by Ben’s sister Beth and her family and the pre-war flat in Hallam Street had been let. For ten months or so they slummed it with friends and relatives. Eventually, Ben was to get Snape back and start composing from there.
In the summer there was a performance of the Sinfonia da Requiem at the proms. Their first public recital was in September at the Wigmore Hall for a performance of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. This had been written, in its original Italian, in America in 1940 and I am a reliably informed by one of our stalwarts who has studied Italian that he cannot make out a word. It was the first work that Ben wrote for Peter Pears. He had not performed the work until he felt ready to do so. Remember, Peter had not been a solo singer but a member of the BBC Singers. In America his range needed extending and he needed to take lessons. Ben recognized his potential. It has been suggested Peter was more a baritone and that much of his high voice was falsetto. The selected sonnets are intense love poems which, except for the last, are addressed to a man. The audience was enthusiastic, the critics favourable, Edward Sackville-West stating the songs to be the finest in England since Purcell. Immediately after the concert, the Decca Record Company approached Ben as he stepped off the stage to sign him up, hence the story by Matthew, cleaned up by him, of the claim that whenever Benjamin Britten farted, Decca were at the ready with the recording mikes.
Pressure of work, living out of a suitcase, Peter being frequently on tour, led to Ben going into hospital in early 1943 with a bad attack of measles. Ben seemed frequently to have incapacitating illnesses and on each one he seemed able to prepare one of his most felicitous works. This time was no exception as he composed, notwithstanding the red spots, his serenade for tenor horn and strings and the prelude and fugue for 18 string instruments. The Serenade was written for Peter Pears and the 22 year old Dennis Brain. It is as if the homecoming had pointed Ben back to English poetry with six unconnected poems set inside a frame of an identical prelude and offstage postlude for what is made to sound like a valveless natural horn. Dennis Brain was a wonder. He eclipsed all horn players before and after. Playing standards have improved and horns are now built to avoid the misses and bubbles they made pre-Brain. Never so with Dennis the Menace. He took his place as first horn with the Philharmonia and the sound from that section back in the 1950’s was as unmistakeable with him there as it was glorious. He entertained at parties playing the finale of the Mendelssohn violin concerto on horn. The cartoonist, Gerrard Hoffnung, brought his characters alive in a Hoffnung concert where Dennis
was the soloist in a concerto for hosepipe and orchestra. His great passion was fast cars – he kept “the Autocar” magazine on his music stand – and it was a fast car which killed him, halfway up a lamp-post on the Barnet bypass, six hours after finishing an Edinburgh Festival concert in 1957. When I heard the news, I cried.
The prelude and fugue was written for the Boyd Neel orchestra for its tenth anniversary, except that it was the middle of the war and many of its members dispersed or whose whereabouts were not known. Eighteen of them were got together and Ben wrote the work with each one of the 18 players in mind. It is shorter than the Frank Bridge Variations and more taut. I first heard it played at a concert, which included the serenade, some four weeks or so after Ben’s death, the news of which had left me numbed. The soloists at the concert were, making his first appearance since Ben had died, a very brave Peter Pears with Michael Thompson, leader of the Philharmonia horns, as good as any to carry on in Dennis’s shadow.
In 1943, Ben and Peter met Michael Tippett. He had been to hear the first performance of the Michelangelo sonnets, The following June he was sentenced to three months imprisonment after refusing to undertake giving up his Morley College choir as a condition of his registration as a conscientious objector being granted. Ben and Vaughan Williams had campaigned for Tippett’s release. Tippett had written Boyhood’s End which he dedicated to Ben. They became close friends for a while but Tippett was never a member of the so-called Britten circle.
There followed in 1943 the cantata, Rejoice in the Lamb, which I mentioned in my introduction, “Getting To Know Him” commissioned by the Revd. Walter Hussey of St Matthews, Northampton. I had thought he was just some local vicar. Well, yes he was at the time, but my further researches show that he went places in the Church hierarchy. He had become Vicar of St Matthew’s from 1937 and to celebrate the church’s fiftieth anniversary he commissioned Rejoice in the Lamb. He later organised a concert by Kirsten Flagstad. Other commissions included a sculpture by Henry Moore, Madonna and Child, a Litany and Anthem from W. H. Auden, Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice by Gerald Finzi, Crucifixion from Graham Sutherland, and The Outer Planet from Norman Nicholson. He became Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1955. Whilst there he commissioned Graham Sutherland to paint an altarpiece, Leonard Bernstein to compose the Chichester Psalms, William Walton a Magnificat and Nunc Dimitiis and commissioned stained glass windows from John Piper and Marc Chagall. Not bad going for a local vicar you might think.
Now remember Ben had needed time to get his head down to Peter Grimes, hence the substantial payment from the Koussivitsky Foundation. He was getting and taking various commissions and in a position to pick and choose. He was at the same time still a journeyman composer with theatre and BBC contracts such as the radio play “Rescue” which involved 80 minutes of music. Much of 1944 was spent working on Grimes in which he encountered various difficulties. He had approached Auden to become the librettist but he turned it down. Perhaps Auden underrated his ability after Paul Bunyan but, if that were the reason, he need not have done so as he and Chester Kalman were later to write the celebrated libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Ben turned to Montagu Slater with whom he had worked before the war but found him painfully slow and frequently unavailable because of work he had undertaken with the Crown Film Unit. In any case there was no
immediate theatre to have hosted Grimes at the time. It had been commissioned to be given its first performance by Koussevitsky but, with America having come into the war, the Tanglewood Festival had closed for the duration. Back home Covent Garden was closed down and Sadlers Wells, where Peter had become one of its lead singers, had two companies out touring in the sticks but no home. No-one could know in 1944 when the war would end, indeed in which way it would end. Still Sadlers Wells it was which made what was a brave decision to open its doors again after the war with Peter Grimes.
One major problem in the writing was that, except for Grimes who has no redeeming factors, the characters in the opera do not exist in the Crabbe. They needed inventing and fleshing and Ben and Peter did much of this to create a background to the plot which would work. Grimes is not made a sympathetic character but he is given the chance to express the frustrations of the hostility with which he was faced. Much has been written that Ben felt a common bond with Grimes with both treated as outsiders, but did he think that of himself? Grimes is, in the words of Swallow, rough, uncouth and callous. Did Ben really see himself viewed like that when by now the whole world was fawning around him?
The build up to the first production of Peter Grimes was itself a drama. Many from the company thought that what the House needed was a new production from the traditional repertoire, not this modern music. There was also no sympathy that its composer, its lead singer, Pears, and its producer, Eric Crozier, were all conscientious objectors. The singer offered the role of Balstrode refused to continue as it was unsingable. There were threats of walk outs and a group petitioned the governors to have themselves made an executive committee which could veto the decisions of Joan Cross, the director. Ben was apprehensive that the whole project was going to end in disaster. It turned out as we know to be a great success, a success with all the press, a greater success with the public. Even one bus conductor at the stop on Roseberry Avenue was heard to shout out “Sadlers Wells, Peter Grimes”. The pro’s had been vindicated, the anti’s lived to fight another day. The conductor, not the one on the bus, had been Reginald Goodall who had previously conducted the first performance of the serenade for tenor and horn. He was not just modest but as timid as a field mouse. His musicianship was never questioned and he finished up near canonized in the seventies. Still no-one seems to have taken exception at the time to the fact that he had been a member of Moseley’s Fascist party and was known as a Nazi sympathiser even during the war. When Reggie was later assistant conductor at Covent Garden the one person who refused to allow him anywhere near was George Solti.
There now followed a period which Michael Oliver describes as “too much success”, something Ben was aware of and worried about. In a letter to Elizabeth Meyer he expressed concern as to whether it was not a sign that his music was too superficial and that “too much success is as bad as too little”. If rest was needed after Peter Grimes, Ben didn’t get it. He was now plunged into the seventeenth century and Purcell in particular, 1945 being the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death. Ben and Peter had been touring singing the folksong arrangements that Ben had made and Purcell’s music that had such an overwhelming influence on Ben that he would shortly write three pieces of his own in tribute. He saw something of himself perhaps in his predecessor, Purcell being a child genius. His life was short and he died at 35,
the same age as Mozart. Ben started work on a new cycle “The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Donne (1572-1631) was from an earlier generation that Purcell (1660-1695) but the music that Ben wrote owes much to Purcell.
Ben broke off from this composition to go on tour to Germany as accompanist to Yehudi Menuhin. Gerald Moore, the most famous accompanist of his day, had been due to go but Ben asked if he could fill the role and it was agreed. He and Menuhin started practising but stopped after a very short while, having felt what they sensed to be an immediate rapport and common understanding. Ben was a natural brilliant accompanist and Moore himself paid him tribute in stating that Ben was the greatest accompanist he had known. The tour with Menuhin was grim. They gave three recitals a day over ten days touring concentration camps where the victims were still gathered including Belsen and Ravensbruk. The two of them were to come across DP’s (displaced persons) roaming a Germany which had been absolutely annihilated. Ben never expressed his feelings publicly but he told Peter it was one of the most harrowing and moving experiences of his life.
On returning he was able to complete the Donne Sonnets. He also produced his second quartet, again a tribute to Purcell in the way it is written and in reproducing in the final movement a Purcell chaconny which ends, in Britten’s hands, with a series of repeated chords where you never can tell which one is going to be the final one . His final Purcell tribute in 1946 was the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra based on a theme from Abdelaazar. No need for me tell you about it.
Now with a successful grand opera under his belt, most English composers would have called it a day. Not Ben, he was working on the next one. The difficulty laying ahead was in being able to mount another opera of the scale of Peter Grimes. Ben’s thoughts had turned to opera on a chamber scale. Solo singers and chamber instrumentalists; no pit orchestra and no chorus. No such precedent existed; Ben conceived the idea and gave birth to the child. The background to these plans was a schism of near Henry VIII proportions which had broken out at the Wells. Joan Cross was a leading pre-war soprano who had studied at Trinity College of Music – I wonder if they know that downstairs – and had directed Sadlers Wells during the war. With mutiny threatened by some of the Wells singers, she now decided to break away with her troops. Ben was in the course of writing an opera based on a play by André Obey he had seen in Paris, The Rape of Lucretia. It is a strange cross breed between the Rome of Tarquin, about 500 BC, with references to the crucifixion of Jesus. This came from a suggestion by Ben to his librettist, Ronald Duncan. Well if poets can have licence, why not composers? Glyndebourne had not yet re-opened and Rudolf Byng invited Joan Cross to join forces to create the Glyndebourne English Opera Group. The conductor was Ernest Ansermet, founder and conductor of the Orchestra of the Swiss Romande, with assistance from Reginald Goodall. The production with Kathleen Ferrier playing Lucretia turned out to be a disappointment and a financial loss on tour. However the concept itself was established, opera that could be performed in local halls and taken on tour. Despite Lucretia being a problematic and disturbing piece it is one of the most widely performed of operas. John Christie, founder of Glyndebourne, having lost fifteen thousand pounds with the production decided that the partnership could not continue. The new company was dissolved with Joan Cross continuing instead as the English Opera Group.
The next chamber opera, this time a comedy, Albert Herring, was more successful. It was based on a short story by Maupassant, Le rosier de Madame Husson, and the setting transposed to Loxford, an imaginary village in Suffolk. It centres on the choice of a suitable person to be Queen of the May. After some shenanigans by a housekeeper who has dug up dirt on every single girl nominated, proving that none is worthy to wear the May Queen’s crown there is a young man in town, Albert Herring, who is as certainly virginal as the girls are not – and he is made May King. Who but Britten could make a subject out of that! I won’t go on with the synopsis but the opera is full of musical quotations including a quote from Tristan and Isolde when Albert drinks a potion of lemonade, spiked with rum. Some have suggested that Albert was a satirical self-portrait of the composer.
Lucretia and Albert were written in 1946 and 1947. Not only did Ben have his hands full in composing and performing and involvement in the productions but he was taking on more commissions, a fanfare for a play by Jean Cocteau, incidental music for the Duchess of Malfi in New York and the Occasional Overture written for the opening of the BBC Third Programme and performed under the baton of the “execrable” Boult. Poor Adrian but Ben could just never see eye to eye with him and suppressed the work, and not the first time either, a pity. In his American years he had written an earlier Occasional Overture which amazingly he had absolutely forgotten. In his later years he at first denied the work was even his until he was shown the autograph. Again a pity, as one can tell after listening to the recording made by Simon Rattle with the Birmingham orchestra, now renamed “An American Overture”.
In December 1946, Ben visited America for the premier there of Peter Grimes. You will remember it had been commissioned by Koussevitsky who was able at long last to give it its first American performance. The remaining performances were undertaken by a 26 year old assistant conductor, Leonard Bernstein. Later, in the eighties, Bernstein took on a 23 year old assistant conductor of his own at the Schleswig Holstein Festival. His name? Matthew Taylor. What a link! Our Matthew may or may not have Peter Grimes in his veins, but he certainly has it in his DNA.
One of the most traumatic things in life is moving house and, with all of this going on, Ben and Peter did just that. The old mill at Snape was sold and they bought Crag House on Crag Path in Aldeburgh overlooking the pebble beach and within spitting distance of the Old Moot Hall where the inquest on the apprentice, William Spode, takes place at the opening of Peter Grimes. Nowadays you can pay a cool million for a detached house there. In 1947 you could have picked up one for a song. And Ben and Peter had plenty of songs in their repertoire.
It is at this point that I turn to a tale of two Burghs. First there is Edinburgh which launched its first international festival in 1947. Then we have the other burgh, Aldeburgh. Having moved into the town, it was Peter who mooted that if Edinburgh can have its festival, then why not Aldeburgh? It had the Jubilee Hall there which could house 340 people, sufficient just for the chamber operas, and various churches in the locality to boot. It wasn’t just Peter and Ben running the show but it no doubt helped to have the Earl of Harewood as president and in the background was Imogen Holst who had experience of festivals. This First Festival which ran for eight days in June 1948 was made under the auspices of the newly founded Arts
Council and also the English Opera Group; Ben wrote St Nicholas for church performance with chorus, children’s chorus strings and percussion commissioned by Peter’s old school, Lancing College. The Jubilee Hall performed Albert Herring and so it was that first Aldeburgh Festival of 1948 got under way. The success of this small town festival led to the decision to turn it into an annual event which has remarkably lasted now for nearly 65 years! What the Salzburg Festival is for Mozart, the Aldeburgh festival is for Britten. Still right from the start there has always been a featured composer, if not two. In 1948 they were Purcell and Lennox Berkeley.
As a result of the Festivals there soon grew what was called the Britten Circle, close friends, socialites and hangers on and a reputation that you were either in or you weren’t or that you were once but no longer so. It led also to antagonism from some who were outside the magic circle. It was rumoured that you had to be homosexual to belong although quite a number of close friends were women. This of course was at a time when homosexuality remained an imprisonable crime and despite the common knowledge of the Britten/Pears relationship they themselves treated the matter as very low key. Still, things were said or thought to be said and doubtless heard by them. Ben in particular was thin skinned and touchy and if he heard something unpleasant he would apparently drop the person concerned without a word being said. This had happened to Lennox Berkeley back in 1940 without his knowing why. At the time of the first Festival Ben was writing an adaptation of John Gay’s Beggar’s opera, sufficiently original for him to accord it an opus number of his own. It got back to him that William Walton had referred to it as “The Buggers’ Opera”. Walton always denied it and Ben accepted that. It is doubtful however if Ben would have had any time of the day for Sir Thomas Beecham who referred to one of Ben’s operas as the Twilight of the Sods!
This strange cold shoulder behaviour was also applied to a number of the boys that Ben had befriended, young trebles with angelic voices which would inevitably break as they developed out of their pre-pubescent stage. They would be dropped. The motivation here however would not have stemmed from a reaction to any wound. One explanation offered is that Ben was possessed of a Peter Pan outlook of not wanting to grow up and that the onset of adolescence would create a loss of innocence in the boy and a loss of empathy for him. This year the psychological columnists are having a field day trying to dish up dirt. There is something reminiscent of Peter Grimes in the way they conduct their form of inquest. Ben’s attitude to children is best evidenced by the numerous works he wrote for them. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written for children to listen to. Let’s Make an Opera was a DIY opera, The Little Sweep, for children to perform. It was a wonderful experience for Ben and the joy he had in working with them is wonderfully reproduced in a book of photographs by collected by Donald Mitchell and John Evans. In one Ben is seen giving a ride in his car to a mixed group of about eight boys and girls from the cast. It is a moment of apparent joy caught in an innocent instance. And yet Richard Morrison very recently in The Times chooses this photograph of both boys and girls together to link Ben with a reference to Jimmy Savile; to describe Ben as a paedophile, “not a predatory sexual one perhaps. But a platonic paedophile, certainly”. This, Mr Morrison, is a discreditable oxymoron.
One legacy of the Aldeburgh Festivals is the number of works written by Ben with performance in a church in mind. This was very much a chicken and egg
conception. Apart from Jubilee Hall, local churches were the main venues for performance. Hence the reason to compose a new work, suitable in subject matter and musical style, meant for a church environment. The outcome was Ben producing works which were peculiarly his own invention. No-one else would have conceived the five canticles. The first of these was written for the Rev. Dick Sheppard, former vicar of St Martins in the Fields and leader of the Peace Pledge Union. The second canticle, was written in 1952 for Peter, Ben and Kathleen Ferrier to perform as a fundraiser for the English Opera Group. The text is based on the Abraham and Isaac story as depicted in the Chester Mystery Plays. There is a somewhat sad sequel. Ferrier died of cancer in 1953. The up and coming contralto at the time was Norma Proctor who was invited to make a recording with Ben and Peter. They rehearsed it in a hotel room not knowing it was being trial recorded there. It then came as a shock for to her to be told by Ben and Peter in a cab that she would not be doing the main recording. They had had in mind John Hahessy, an Irish alto, to record it instead. Norma Proctor was understandably deeply upset at falling out of favour and being ditched. Some forty years or so later when she was in her eighties tears were to run down her face after the original recording tapes from the hotel were discovered and played over for her to hear and recall for the first time. It is a superb performance, far better than that with Hahessy. The canticles should not be confused with the later Church Parables, chamber operas and again written for church performances.
The years from 1945 to 1950 were particularly fruitful. Benjamin Britten in that time had turned from a brilliant up and coming but a tad showy composer into a mature person who had developed his own brand as no-one else could. Now with the fifties approaching Ben had developed an idea for another big opera. In 1951 the Festival of Britain was planned by the then Labour Government as a centenary for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and to celebrate the beginnings of recovery after the war. Three operas were commissioned for the event, one by Benjamin Britten who turned to Melville’s Billy Budd. It was an unfinished novella with varying drafts as to how to portray the characters. The action takes place aboard a man of war in 1797 in the early Napoleonic wars following a mutiny at the Nore. The story appealed to Ben who turned to E M Forster and Eric Crozier for the libretto, something EMF was uncertain of as it was a new experience for him. It is sufficient to say that liberties were taken with the story sufficient to see it as an allegory where Billy Budd is portrayed as a Christ like figure of innocence and perfection – apart from a stutter; Claggart, the master at arms, a nautical Scarpia who seeks to destroy Billy in order to suppress the attraction he has towards him which he reveals in one soliloquy. Captain Vere, who witnesses Billy strike and kill Claggart can save him but duty prevents him from doing so. Billy is tried and found guilty according to the articles of war, and blesses Captain Vere before being hanged at the yard arm. It is set in the wake of mutinies, heavy with oppression, press ganging, brutality and boredom. I do not think because of this the work is overlaid with homoeroticism as a number of commentators have stated. It is, perhaps uniquely, an opera for men only set in claustrophobic surroundings. Still, I think these writers are simply repeating what others have said before and read too much into what they know of the authors. The real moral of the story is Captain Vere who is torn between observing the strict rules of naval discipline or allowing discretion for mitigating circumstances. To me, having spent a lifetime in the law, it bears out my long held adage that, when it comes to the law, justice happens to be merely incidental.
The success of Billy Budd led to a prestigious further commission. Late in 1951, the labour government fell; the conservatives had won, just; Winnie was back; steel was denationalised; sweets came off the coupon; the Festival of Britain was axed, the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon demolished (but fortunately not the Festival Hall). In January 1952 the King suddenly died, having smoked one cigarette too many, and a new young queen hastened in the new Elizabethan Age. It was all in the Daily Express and the News Chronicle at the time. The coronation was set for June 1953 and Ben was commissioned to write an opera to celebrate the event. What better subject than Elizabeth I, a particular favourite of the new Elizabeth, to be called “Gloriana”, the name given by the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser to his character representing Elizabeth I in The Faerie Queene. The libretto was by William Plomer and based on Lytton Strachey’s 1928 Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History. It turned out to be the biggest disappointment, a flop to the delight of some. There have been very few performances since and no recording has been made. Few people know it and I can only hazard a guess as to what happened. First of all the story itself showed the illustrious ancestor in a mean light, even pinching the clothes of the Duchess of Essex (Harvey Nick wasn’t around at the time for her to be able to afford a change of dress). This portrayal is said to have upset the Queen. Anyway the Queen didn’t do opera and she obviously preferred Pinza to Britten and Pears, (Here, I refer to Pinza, the 1953 Derby winner, not Enzio Pinza, the opera singer) . The music was never going to please everybody. The opera goers were torn between the trads and the mods; the Courtly Dances were period reproduction and not to the taste of the new emerging school of purists nor to the taste of the Queen’s handsome consort for whom there was no hornpipe for him to jig to; and the vast majority of black ties and fur coats would have expected a pageant for a coronation opera and Ben didn’t go in for pageants. Willie Walton should have been the man for the job. It would have been a glorious mix of Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre written respectively for the coronations of Edward VIII/George VI and Elizabeth II, mixed in with a variant on Henry V and Agincourt, added to the ingredients. Mind you it would have taken Willie five years minimum to write it and I doubt that Her Majesty would have been prepared to postpone her coronation. Still now’s your chance to judge for yourselves. Greenwich Cinema are showing from 19 August Billy Budd recorded at Glyndebourne in 2010 and Gloriana on 28 June direct from Covent Garden. See you there.
From the return in 1942 and throughout the immediate postwar years all had gone successfully. It could be said that, Gloriana excepted, Benjamin Britten had never had it so good. At this point, in Matthew’s mid-morning words, let’s take a break.