Benjamin Britten (5) – The Last Two Decades


 We left Benjamin Britten having fallen out of bed with Gloriana in 1953. Even though he might have presented a poker face to the rest of the world, he was undoubtedly hurt. The following evening he was due to conduct in Aldeburgh. The Rev Walter Hussey had been invited during that day to lunch at Crag House but his host did not come down to join him and he was left on his own to eat lunch. When Ben did appear, he was in a highly nervous state and could not eat. Still, that could also have been performance nerves. As he grew older this problem got worse and he could never hold down food once he was in the dressing room. For the last ten years he had been producing works at a rate of knots with operas turned out almost by the year since Grimes. Now there was a marked slowdown. In the next three years he produced only three major works including the song cycle Winter Words based on poems by Hardy. However the one he already had had in mind was “The Turn of The Screw”.

 Since 1935 Ben had been friendly with, the artist, John Piper, who had designed the sets of his operas, and his wife, Myfanwy. It was she who introduced Ben to the novella by Henry James concerning a governess employed to look after two children, Miles and Clara. It was a story of corruption of innocence of the children by two previous servants, now ghosts. It is not clear if these ghosts are imaginary or real and in the Britten neither appears on the stage but we do hear them. It was a theme that would have immediately appealed to Ben and he asked Myfanwy to act as librettist. Ben had had a falling out with his earlier librettists for one reason or another or for no reason. He had previously exchanged ideas with Myfanwy on earlier works and she had got to know what he was looking for. This chamber opera had been commissioned by the Venice Biennale, and although postponed at Ben’s request, he eventually wrote it in an amazing period of four months. Of the music I will say nothing as Matthew has illustrated it already. Every year there will be some half a dozen productions in performance somewhere or another.

 There followed a four month world tour holiday for Ben and Peter) with some friends; well not exactly a holiday as their journey was peppered with recitals. For Ben the greatest delight of this trip would be his experiences with Indian, Balinese and Japanese music. Indian music had interested him after seeing a West End production in 1932. Japanese music would be new to him. It was however the Gamelan of Bali that had an overwhelming influence on much of his future output. Poulenc’s double piano concerto which he and Ben had played together in 1938 had its Gamelan influences. Later, when Ben was in America he met the Canadian composer Colin Macphee who was to become the leading authority in the West on Balinese music. Back in 1939 he and Ben played together on the piano of Elizabeth Mayer and I have been lucky enough to hear a recording. It sounds a bit like minimalist music, a sort of Steve Reich goes east. Now on this holiday Ben was able to hear it for himself. Their journey took them on to Japan where Ben was to see produced Noh plays, very stylised, which formed the inspiration for his later church parable, Curlew River.

 But it was Gamelan, which he listened to intensely, which came to influence his own writing. It was not just imitation exoticism, like Scheherazade, but the adoption of scales and sounds into his own music leaving its effect on much of the later Britten works. The first outcome was The Prince of the Pagodas, a full length ballet of the Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky variety, to be choreographed by John Cranko. For once Ben encountered difficulties and it remained unfinished by the time of his return. The production was not a happy one and Ben more or less withdrew from it, a pity because it contained more orchestral music than in anything he had previously written. His later television opera, Owen Wingrave, contained Gamelan touches as did Death in Venice, neither of which has the remotest connection with Java..

 Soon after this far eastern tour Ben was composing a new song cycle called Songs of the Chinese. This time the accompanist for whom he wrote was not himself but the guitarist Julian Bream.

In 1957 Ben conceived the idea of Noye’s Fludde, a community opera for children based on a fifteenth century Chester Miracle play. Originally it was planned as a television production but that was dropped and instead the first performance was in Orford Church, Suffolk, as part of the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival. It has been likened to a Baroque concerto grosso with a small professional concertino ensemble consisting of string quintet, recorder, piano, organ, and timpani. The rest is strictly amateur for strings, recorders, bugles, hand-bells, and percussion to be played by children performers, even beginners. Being in church, the audience is referred to as the “congregation”, and joins in the singing of three hymns; shades of J S Bach. Its joy is that it is a communal affair. Interestingly one of the first child cast members was a 12 year old Michael Crawford. Britten was insistent that performances should always take place in a church or a community hall but never in a theatre.

All of this took place against the background of Ben and Peter moving house again. Much as he loved Crag House and the view of the North Sea, their celebrity resulted in the whole world and its dog peering into their living room to see if they could see them. Fortunately they were able to find exactly what they wanted by doing a house swap with a local artist, Mary Potter, who needed something smaller. Thus it was that Ben and Peter moved into the Red House at the back of Aldeburgh, next to the golf course and away from prying eyes and, alas, the view of the North Sea. For the most part they found solitude and peace, except for the intermittent noise of the planes from the nearby American airbase, low level flying over town and sea. Later Ben and Peter bought a second smaller home some twenty miles inland, a retreat from Aldeburgh activity.

Another change was the expansion of the Jubilee Theatre which lacked until then dressing room space. Money was raised to purchase the adjoining butchers shop which resulted also in extending the size of the pit. It was there that they were able to perform for the first time A Midsummer Nights Dream. This was his next opera and something which Ben had always wanted to adapt. This time he did away with any librettist and he and Peter got down to cutting the play down to size whilst retaining most of Shakespeare’s wording. The magical nature of this work and its set was perhaps a Brittenesque foretaste of the psychedelic swinging sixties. The music has been amply demonstrated by Matthew. So you don’t need me.

The year 1960 brought about a happy or, rather, two happy conjunctions. The Leningrad Philharmonic under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky were giving performances at the Royal Festival Hall. I was there sitting, behind the double basses, for the Shostakovitch 8th. He himself came on to the platform to take his applause, a painfully shy man. What I would not have known was that Ben had entered his box to meet him. Two shy men who would form a mutual admiration society. Also let loose on this tour was Mstislav Rostropovich (Slava) who was playing the first UK performance of the Shostakovitch first cello concerto. He was the antithesis of Shostakovitch, a man who did everything larger than life. When TV news broke with an attempted coup in Moscow, who else but Rostropovich would announce he was going to the bank and instead jump on a plane and be seen two hours later on TV standing alongside Boris Yeltsin. His wife went spare. I can well remember round about 1980 when visiting Aldeburgh a great kerfuffle erupted in Boots. Someone or another was looking for something he couldn’t find and suddenly there in front of me was Slava complaining fff with the whole staff following him up and down the aisles between the shelves. When Ben was introduced to him by Shostakovich, Slava immediately told Ben he would like him to compose something for him. They couldn’t exchange much conversation as Ben spoke no Russian and Slava only could manage two words of English, Thank you and Good bye. Still they established a lingua franca of German which Slava said no German could understand and which they called Aldeburgh Deutsch. After much difficulty with Ben going to the Soviet Union and Slava getting permission to come to England, Ben was able to play with him the cello sonata, the first of a number of works written for Slava and which, but for him, would never otherwise have seen the light of day.

 In 1961, the City of Coventry commissioned Benjamin Britten to write a work for the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral next to the bombed remains of St Michaels. It was the occasion for a big work. Ben had had thoughts previously of combining the Mass for the Dead with poetry cycles but nothing had come of it. Now was the opportunity to do just that. It needed a further element, a cry for peace and forgiveness, in that it was bombing which had destroyed the old cathedral. His vision was to intersperse sections of the Latin mass performed by the chorus and orchestra with a cycle of poems written by Wilfred Owen shortly before his death in 1918 to be sung by an English tenor (Pears) and a German baritone (Fischer-Dieskau) accompanied by a chamber group. The final climax would have all the forces joining together with Owen’s poem, Strange Meeting, being set against the In Paradisum. Then, having met Slava’s wife, the soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, Ben offered a part in it for her, in the Latin Mass. Thus it became a symbolism for peace between former warring enemies embracing the USSR. This was immediately opposed by the Soviet authorities who would not countenance Vishnevskaya appearing next to a German (it might have been different if he had been from East Germany) and their refusing her an exit permit. The was instead sung by Heather Harper who had 11 days to learn it and in four of which she already had singing engagements. Soon afterwards the famous Decca recording was made, this time with Vishnevskaya but for my money Heather Harper has always proved the better bet.   The first performance was an ecclesiastical shambles, like something out of Trollope. The main orchestra and chamber group were separated and needed separate conductors. The audience on the day was allowed in through a narrow door and were still entering when it was time to start. With the Queen and everybody else from Who’s Who there, except God, and the BBC keeping its eye on its schedules the dean and chapter wanted to get going but Ben would not do so. The War Requiem was a seminal work. It was played round the world. 200,000 copies of the recording were sold within a year.. It and its message were adopted by the Establishment and lefties alike. It was timely, having been written at the height of the cold war, with President Kennedy standing up to Kruschev, as well as it being in the middle of the Vietnam war.

 Ben was now approaching his fiftieth birthday and in some ways beginning to be seen as an Establishment figure. He had previously declined a knighthood but was one of the few people to have been awarded both the Order of Merit and Companion of Honour. He had no problems in accepting royal patronage if it meant writing music. He remained close to the Harewoods who in fact were musical as well as patrons of the Aldeburgh Festival. George was an opera buff and director at both Covent Garden and the ENO. On the less rarefied side of the coin he was also on the board of Leeds United FC and chairman of the Football Association for many years. Marion, his first wife, had been a concert pianist and was the daughter of the Viennese musicologist, Erwin Stein. And yet, though Ben may have been seen to have hob-nobbed with royalty, (or royalty hobnobbed with him), there is a telling exchange of letters between him and Peter in 1963. The Duke of Edinburgh had earlier asked Ben if he would write something for St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. Ben’s letter to Peter refers to “all these other dreary HRH’s – these hopeless misfits who go round condemning everything new in their snobbish way”. Peter, with his feet as ever more on the ground commented in reply that it was remarkable that royalty should befriend them at all as “we are after all queer, & left & conshies which is enough to put us outside the pale, apart from being artists as well”.

 In 1964, Ben was to receive the OM, a personal award of the Queen. By this time he was working with difficulty on the next opera, the first of his church parables, Curlew River. He did not want his librettist, William Plomer, to go and see a noh play for fear of what would turn out to be a pastiche. In Noh tradition, the women are played by men wearing masks. The role of the mad woman who has lost her son was to be played by Peter, and the thought of him playing a role in women’s clothes caused Ben considerable anxiety. The work is itself dreadfully difficult and involves players leading each other without any conductor. Often seasoned experts, like Ossian Ellis, the harpist, said that certain effects were impossible to achieve. Yet Ben himself was able to show them, on their own instruments, how it could be done. The man was truly amazing.

 Ben’s health was playing up a lot. During the writing of the Turn of the Screw he first suffered a complaint which affected his right arm making writing difficult. Other ailments affected him and in 1964 he was ordered to rest from performances and he and Peter travelled to India which he loved. Later they were invited by the Union of Soviet Composers to visit Armenia where they stayed with the Rostropovich’s. Whilst there, Ben set six poems by Pushkin to music in hastily contrived Russian for Vishnevskaya to sing with cello accompaniment for Rostropovich. Back in England he was to compose the first of three unaccompanied cello suites for him, inspired by Bach’s example.

 Ben was living now more than ever in Aldeburgh and with failing health the rest of the world came to see him. His public image was one of middle class sedateness, speaking somewhat like a school housemaster which did not betray that underneath was a man of acute sensitivity who could easily be hurt and who could break off from long held friendships. Rosamunde Strode who replaced Imogen Holst in looking after his paperwork made a point of keeping her distance and never interrupting him when he was at his desk. He was a disciplined man who rose early, believed in cold showers, worked uninterrupted till 1 pm; swam or played tennis or walked in the afternoon composing in his head and returned to his desk in the evening unless there were conflicting engagements. He encouraged young composers who sent him their work, like Robert Saxton and Peter Maxwell Davis, advising them not to compose at the piano but to listen for the sounds inside their heads. In 1964 he received the first Aspen award in Colorado out of more than a hundred nominations designed to recognize “the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to advancement of the humanities”. There, he delivered a speech setting out his credo on the role of the artist in society. For him music was a three way involvement, to be composed; to be performed and equally to be listened to. For him the audience was an essential participant. He was disparaging of the loudspeaker although, truth be told, it had earned him a bob or two. The prize brought with an award of $50.000 which Ben paid to a charity to help young musicians.

 Back home he was writing more for the Aldeburgh Festival which desperately needed a larger theatre for certain events. They scoured the county when chance fell their way in Snape, near his first house, the old Mill.   The old Maltings, a massive building, once used for making barley, had fallen into disuse and were up for sale. The money needed to convert was £175,000 and was quickly raised. The hall seating 800 was reckoned to be the finest in the country and soon was used not only for the Festival but for other events and recordings. The Maltings was opened by the Queen in 1967 with a concert overture by you know who, “The Building of the House”. I have a recording of it with the chorus entering out of tune, a whole tone higher than the orchestra. Ben would of course have been appalled, but neither he nor the honoured visitor could have possibly commented.

 Early in 1968 Ben took his second holiday in Venice where he composed the third parable, The Prodigal Son, but whilst there he became seriously ill with bacterial endocarditis which affected the inner tissues of his heart, the same disease which ended Mahler’s life. It didn’t stop Ben from completing The Prodigal Son to be performed at the Maltings. It was only modern antibiotics which saved his life, but it would lead to the serious heart condition which was to follow.

 Two years after the opening of the Maltings, disaster struck, in the form of a faulty electrical connection, causing a fire which burnt the new building down. Ben and Peter look shattered, were shattered, but vowed to keep the festival going. The two of them undertook a strenuous US tour to raise money for the eventual re-opening. Later that year they were performing in Australia and New Zealand. This was to be followed by a further opera, composed by Ben to be performed in a new medium. Owen Wingrave was yet another Henry James story which appealed to Ben. This time, it was an opera written for television, about a son in a traditional military family but who is a conscientious objector. Ben did not get on with television and their TV ways and made it clear he had no intention to revisit the opera or the TV studio. Had he lived, which alas he did not, he might well have thought of adapting it to the stage. We shall never know.

 Now in 1970, his mind was turning to another opera, this time based on Thomas Mann’s novella, written following the death of Mahler in 1911, Death in Venice. The story of a dying writer who, in Venice, falls in love with what he sees to be the perfection of a boy whom he has watched but who does not appear to be aware of him. It is yet another Britten theme where he seems to be confronting the world either with his devils or is it a challenge of “so what?”. Is it provocation or is it the release of what he feels? The odd thing throughout is that Benjamin Britten was such a seemingly conventional person who was angered by others who broke the conventions. Although a private misfit himself, he deliberately went out of his way not to draw attention to himself. He seems to have seen the misbehaviour of others as doing harm to him. Thus it was that he was deeply hurt by the behaviour of Lord Harewood in leaving his wife Marion for another woman. Ben had introduced him to Marion in the first place, and now gently suggested ”with regret” that Harewood step down from being chairman of the Aldeburgh Festival; then afterwards let it be known he did not seek his company any more. Ben, with his middle class background, was not concerned for Noblesse Oblige as Les Bourgeois Obligent.

 By 1970 Ben’s health was such that he had difficulty in walking. He was diagnosed as having a defective heart valve and needed an operation. Ben put this off in order to finish Death in Venice. When eventually he underwent surgery two years later it was found his heart was too enlarged to carry out the planned process. During the six hour operation he had a minor stroke. There was nothing the medical world could do. Despite his weakened physical state he continued writing. He turned back to some earlier works from his younger days to give them a new lick of paint. He cried on hearing Paul Bunyan for the first time in thirty five years and might well have decided to revisit it. He wept when he heard in 1973 of the death of Wystan Auden after twenty years of virtual estrangement.

 Confined now to a wheelchair and unable to write, he took on a young composer as an amanuensis, David Matthews who will be speaking to us. Despite his physical weakness he wrote his third quartet requested by and promised to Hans Keller. Matthew has illustrated it to us. The invention and mind of Benjamin Britten are as active as ever. It is like no other string quartet one knows. Its mixtures of duos and solos and a third movement which sounds as though inspired by the sounds of an aviary belong to another planet. The final pasacaglia is simply haunting, a valediction from a man artistically desperate to hang on in, but who knew he was approaching his end. Only with few weeks left he was created a life peer, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. He justified this jokingly that as he could not use his right arm, he need only now sign his name, “Britten”. He died in the arms of Peter Pears on 6th December 1976. He was buried in Aldeburgh church yard where the choir sung the Hymn to the Virgin, which he had written at school when he was sixteen.

 This centenary retrospective may not have convinced all of you. No need to worry on that score. Not everyone takes to Bach or is into Wagner or digs Chopin. Let’s face it, Handel is not Matthew’s cup of tea. One might say of Benjamin Britten that he was a marmite composer. What one hopes has come through is the sense of true greatness. This series has shown Benjamin Britten in a different light, that he was not just a youthful show off, as Mozart had been, or as Beethoven was. Love him or not, he was someone who was an intensely individual creative genius as we are never likely to encounter again. Certainly not this side of a convergence of the Great Bear and Pleiades taking place on a St Cecilia’s day.