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What Did You Do in the War, Benjy?

For most present-day pundits, Benjamin Britten matters primarily as a sexual dissident.

By From the April 2013 issue

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Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century
By Paul Kildea
(Allen Lane, 665 pages, $45)

THANKS TO THE CENTENARY of his birth this year, Benjamin Britten–related books are truly gushing from English publishers, what with Neil Powell’s Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, Lucy Walker’s Britten in Pictures, and volume six (!) of the man’s correspondence all emerging within weeks of the present biography. It has become a cliché among such books’ reviewers to observe that Britten is as popular now as when he died in 1976. He is certainly as much talked about as he was then. How much this verbiage concerns his music is another issue. (After the nauseating revelations of earlier biographers, John Bridcut and the late Humphrey Carpenter, no newspaper in 2013 would dare use the headline with which London’s Sunday Times flagged the composer’s obituary: “Britten: a man with purity of vision.”)

We need not adopt the indefensibly extreme stance of dismissing Britten as a Harvey Milk with brains to point out that his initial cheer squad drew disproportionately upon musical semi-literates. Tributes to him as “English music’s savior” or “the first major English composer since Purcell” were always absurd. The truth is, artistic criteria play a smaller role in Britten’s current repute than in that of any other important modern creative musician, Shostakovich excepted. For most present-day pundits, Britten and Shostakovich matter primarily as dissidents, sexual dissidence assuming the same inspirational role with the Englishman that political dissidence has with the Russian. Both men accordingly generate innumerable column inches from a commentariat largely uninterested in musical considerations.

Paul Kildea used to administer (1999–2002) Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk, so his preparedness to criticize his subject is broadly comparable with Arthur Schlesinger’s inclination to rebuke Camelot. If Britten is the Master, Kildea is His Master’s Voice, a parallel rendered doubly relevant by the H.M.V. recording empire’s recent collapse. But being a true believer possesses some advantages, despite Kildea’s periodic determination to imitate Britten’s musical tics, however unconvincing (why does he call the influence of Britten’s conducting bête noire Sir Adrian Boult “treacly”?), and to find examples of “homophobic” malevolence almost everywhere this side of Jupiter. Kildea seems conversant with every surviving Britten manuscript—by his 15th year Britten had reached Opus 534, though he subsequently suppressed most juvenilia—and analyzes even Britten’s least recalled works with an unusually telling prose style that helps outweigh the volume’s absence of printed musical extracts. Likening Britten’s early opera Paul Bunyan to “a magic-lantern show…with an improvised narrative” proves genuinely helpful, as does Kildea’s account of the heavily Indonesian-influenced 1957 ballet The Prince of the Pagodas: “gamelan takes hold of the texture, almost throttling it with clanking percussion writing.”

To read Kildea is to recollect how openly people discussed Britten’s “private” orientation well before this orientation became legal: discussed it, furthermore, not only in his homeland but in 1960s Australia, a land if anything still more sexually conservative than Wolfenden Report–preoccupied England. Even there, admittedly, prudence dictated the habitual description of Britten’s longtime lover Peter Pears as his “friend.” One country unaware of Britten’s proclivity was Soviet Russia; in 1971 the KGB naively tried to entrap the visiting composer with a woman.

Well might Kildea feel unease when recounting Britten the apparatchik. Britten’s political vaporizing—it seldom deserves so pugnacious a term as “thinking”—was exacerbated, but not caused, by membership in W.H. Auden’s personality cult. (One movie-directing buddy of Auden’s flatly asked Christopher Isherwood: “Well, have we convinced Ben he’s queer, or haven’t we?”) This vaporizing made Britten an overt commie-symp throughout Stalin’s show trials and the Spanish Red terror (though innate canniness prevented him from acquiring a Party card); a stooge of Japanese militarists as late as 1940; pro-Communist again during Tito’s, Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s reigns (even Kildea cannot defend Britten’s 1968 refusal to protest against the invasion of Prague); and, most notoriously—for all his purported anti-Nazism—a leather-lunged pacifist before, during, and after Auschwitz. Unlike Robert Lowell, he could invoke neither bipolar illness nor anti-FDR scruples to extenuate conscientious objection. His catalogue of heroic idiocy included untroubled stateside civilian comfort from 1939 to 1942, though his domestic arrangements precluded filial reproaches on “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” lines.

Altogether, Britten makes the young Auden look intelligent. Auden actually visited martyred Spain, and there discerned not just the horrors of Red handiwork, but (far more upsetting for him) such handiwork’s inevitability whenever genteel pagans like himself applauded radical chic from the sidelines. No such appointment in Marxist-Leninism’s Samarra deflated Britten’s insular self-assurance: Why fret if bolshies smacked around a few papists? That outlook duly guaranteed Britten’s military non-achievement even without Auden’s pressure. An upper-middle-class Englishman is inherently cosseted in any epoch; but seldom has cosseting been more manifest than in the period of Britten’s most puerile activism.

BY SOME MIRACLE, Britten long managed to protect his muse from his political malignity. Even the Sinfonia da Requiem, intended to appease Hirohito, remains art, not agitprop. Thus his youthful composing technique—formidable enough to warrant analogies with Mendelssohn—exhibited an inventive success largely lost to him thereafter. Had Britten died aged 38, as Mendelssohn did, we would still have had his Frank Bridge Variations, Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Les Illuminations, and the supremely dazzling Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. We would also have been spared his 1962 War Requiem, as predominantly tasteless a spectacle as could be predicted from one whose own qualifications for discoursing on arma virumque are about as impressive as Jimmy Savile’s qualifications for running a convent school. (Few in 1962 remembered Evelyn Waugh’s admonition about artists: “If they want to write about the war, the way is clear for them. They must be, or have been, part of it.”) Poor Wilfred Owen: demise in battle constituting insufficient penance, he had to have his verses set to music by a draft dodger.

At this point, censuring Britten had become (for most Englishmen, anyhow; Stravinsky showed no qualms) a gesture too obviously transgressive to gain even the most outré among intellectual rewards. Unlike Wagner, compelled to wait till his last decade for his Bayreuth shrine, Britten had his own festival at Aldeburgh from his mid-30s onward. Over this he presided in a fashion less blatantly despotic than Wagner’s, but fully conscious of Numero Uno’s prerogatives. Kildea does not make it clear whether Britten’s output benefited from his cultivation (encouraged by Aldeburgh) of what Dwight Macdonald called “the genius act.”

Britten’s latter-day “woe is me” protestations make bizarre reading from an Order of Merit member who hobnobbed with royals and eventually acquired a peerage. Kildea stresses that Britten “remained thrifty in his tastes,” but the sheer scale of Britten’s earnings (before pre-Thatcher taxation bureaucracies gobbled up most of them) is surprising. He never needed to live by his pen. His parents fairly rolled in money, and as a mature craftsman he eschewed antipathetic commissions. Greater willingness to undertake honest bill-paying hackwork might have deterred Britten from indulging his last years’ embarrassing homoerotic obsessions: notably Death in Venice, so skin-crawlingly amateurish as to instill in most listeners the desire to assassinate every gondolier on sight.

Back in 1949, a critic named Becket Williams (unmentioned by Kildea) described every significant composer as evolving in four stages: “student, prig, virtuoso, and artist.” “Mr. Britten,” he added, “is still in the third, the virtuoso stage. Most of his admirers are still in the second.” The artistic misfires of Britten after 1960 bespeak less virtuosity unfocused than virtuosity downright enfeebled. If Peter Grimes ranks as English operatic history’s chief monument, then Death in Venice has claims to be such history’s chief typo. It may yet reach the same camp status currently occupied by the poetasting of Stephen Spender, at whose pretensions the very walls of San Francisco’s bathhouses must today echo with emphatic ridicule. At least Kildea’s accounts of specific late Britten pieces—including the Racine-inspired cantata Phaedra—suggest transcendence of Death in Venice’s doldrums, a transcendence aborted by Britten’s own end. (Incidentally, Kildea’s insistence that tertiary syphilis carried away Britten has been discounted by surviving physicians involved with Britten’s care, who identify the killer as humdrum cardiac disease.)

Notwithstanding Kildea’s exegetic punctilio regarding Britten’s idiom, mysteries annoyingly endure. We may wonder, for instance, why Kildea mostly snubs Britten’s tireless female advocate Jennifer Vyvyan. And how much Christian belief—as opposed to what Kildea calls “sentimental or cultural attachment to Christianity”—did the adult Britten preserve? Whilst never explicitly avowing atheism, he devoted part of one pacifist diatribe to denying Christ’s divinity. If he really viewed religion as a mere aesthetic mud bath (useful, amid the Hitler war, for evading conscription), what are the implications for his Missa Brevis and Church Parables, let alone Lucretia’s defiantly Christocentric epilogue? This question needs authoritative scrutiny, but of course peddling identity politics is where the journalistic glamor lies.

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About the Author

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia, and is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, 2012).