The Haunting of Benjamin Britten
The Haunting of Benjamin Britten
John Matthias reflects on Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of 1992, in light of earlier work by Auden and recent findings.
Almost fifteen years ago I reviewed Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden in The Southern Review (Winter, 1983), along with two books treating Benjamin Britten’s collaborative work with Auden and Ronald Duncan - Donald Mitchell’s Britten and Auden in the Thirties and Duncan’s autobiographical Working With Britten. Because Carpenter’s subsequent biography of Britten (Faber & Faber, 1992) draws both on his own earlier study of Auden as well as on the Mitchell and Duncan volumes, I need to repeat a few things I said more than a decade ago. Most of all, because Carpenter makes of the Auden letter which I quoted from Mitchell’s notes the key to understanding Britten’s life and work, I need to quote and comment on that strange and prophetic document once more.
During the comparatively brief phase of their collaborative work, Auden challenged and dominated Britten like no one else in his life. Having followed Auden to America in 1939, Britten and Peter Pears decided in 1941 to return to England, a decision which Auden regretted and which led him to write in his characteristically intimidating way about the dangers he foresaw for his friend. “Goodness and Beauty,” he began, “are the results of a perfect balance between Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention. Bohemian chaos alone ends in a mad jumble of beautiful scraps; Bourgeois convention alone ends in large unfeeling corpses.” It becomes clear that Auden is really talking about the artist’s need to locate and release potentially destructive energies in himself while simultaneously controlling, making intelligible, and indeed domesticating them through the imposition of form.
Every artist except the supreme masters has a bias one way or the other. The best pair of opposites I can think of in music are Wagner and Strauss. (Technical skill always comes from the bourgeois side of one’s nature.)
For middle-class Englishmen like you and me, the danger is of course the second. Your attraction to thin-as-a-board juveniles, i.e. to the sexless and innocent, is a symptom of this. And I am certain too that it is your denial and evasion of the demands of disorder that is responsible for your attacks of ill-health, i.e. sickness is your substitute for the Bohemian.
Wherever you go you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do, e.g. Elisabeth, Peter (Please show this to P to whom all this is also addressed). Up to a certain point this is fine for you, but beware. You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself in this way, i.e. to build yourself a warm nest of love (of course when you get it, you find it a little stifling) by playing the lovable talented little boy.
If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer, and make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present, and against every conscious value that you have; i.e. you will have to be able to say what you never have had the right to say - God, I’m a shit.
Carpenter’s long examination of the life and work plays variations on this letter again and again for more than six hundred pages. Britten’s prodigious technical skill - the speed, ease, and complexity of his composition rival that of Mozart - which produces work after work on the single obsessive theme of lost innocence; his negotiations with “the demands of disorder” which lead him to build around himself a protective and nurturing community at Aldeburgh - his Bayreuth on the Suffolk coast - while suffering out a series of illnesses and repressed longings for young boys finding oblique or direct expression in his operas from Peter Grimes to Death in Venice; his development from charming provincial prodigy - a curly-haired Lowestoft teenager who had composed from the time he first sat down at the family piano - to the tormented and dying Lord Britten whose “full stature” is reached in part by “making others suffer” - these are the stories Carpenter has to tell. Many works, especially the operas, are weighed on the Audenesque balance - this one tending to bourgeois order, that one to bohemian chaos. And Auden himself, as Britten once said, is in all of them.
If Britten’s sense of personal guilt was necessary for the full musical realization of his theme of lost innocence, Auden, Carpenter insists, predicted the nature of his mature work with the last full text he provided for his friend, “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” arguing (as Carpenter has it) “that loss of innocence must be celebrated, must itself become the subject of music”:
O dear white children casual as birds
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain…
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain
That what has been may never be again,
O bless the freedom that you never chose,
O wear your tribulation like a rose.
These lines, written for the composer actually born on St. Cecilia’s day, were set for unaccompanied choir on board the ship returning him to England in 1942. They anticipate with great accuracy just what it was that Britten’s work would do. But if Britten was able in his music to celebrate the loss of innocence and acknowledge darkness or the demands of disorder by setting words, writing operas, introducing the impurities of “ruined languages” into what might otherwise be pure articulations of sound, in his life he sought to be a kind of Peter Pan, to live as only music - pure and utterly gratuitous - can live:
I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play
I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.
This middle section of Auden’s Hymn describes pure music, not human life. Britten was such a profoundly musical being that to many he appeared almost to embody it, to be music. But, unlike music, he had to grow; he had a shadow that darkened and lengthened; he could err; there was a creature to whom he belonged and many he could wrong. He played beautifully, but he played in a fallen world of ruined languages, confusing words, great silences and dreadful acts where, as Cecilia says in her italicized response to Auden’s supplicant in the final section of his Hymn, Lost innocence ay even wish its lover dead.
When I reviewed the Carpenter, Mitchell, and Duncan books fifteen years ago, I was brought up short by Duncan’s claim in his memoir that he was “not fooled by Britten’s diffidence, knowing his ruthless ambition; nor impressed by his gentleness, having observed his cruelty. If he embraced anybody, it was to strangle them eventually…No man had more charm…but behind the mask was another person, a sadist, psychologically crippled and bent.” I wondered at the time, and I asked, if Duncan’s account could possibly be true and accurate; it seemed more like the bitter and jealous exaggeration of a librettist suddenly replaced by Eric Crozier. But similar accounts of Britten’s humanly crippling yet musically enabling contradictions multiply in Carpenter’s biography to the extent that one has no alternative but to take Duncan at his word, to realize that Britten earned the dubious right to say, as Auden hoped he might, “God, I’m a shit.”
All this makes Carpenter’s biography very painful reading. One would rather hear the music itself, take out all the old recordings. Doing so, however, it becomes difficult after reading Carpenter to hear the work the way one did before; everything seems to be autobiography, even an opera about Queen Elizabeth.
Carpenter has been criticized for musically unsophisticated and essentially literary readings of Britten’s works, but these works, many of them, belong to literature as well as music - they are settings, in several languages, of some of our greatest poetry and treatments of stories, myths and liturgies that define our culture. It is for this reason that Britten, above all other British composers, is of importance to literary as well as musical history and why his biography demands discussion in a literary magazine. But it is true that Carpenter, who can effectively quote from poetry to demonstrate a thesis in his biographies of Auden and Pound, often attempts to do the same in his biography of Britten, and never once reproduces a passage from a score. Instead, substituting a rudimentary description and analysis of the music which he hopes will be accessible to laymen, he risks the charges of reductiveness and superficiality brought against him by reviewers like Robin Holloway and Nicholas Spice, who feel, as the latter wrote in the London Review of Books, that insofar as Carpenter analyses the music at all, he treats it “as just text in another form - in short, as code.” Although it is clearly difficult to discuss music, as Spice says, “in terms of texts and narratives without reducing [it] to crude and schematic verbal paraphrases,” Carpenter takes his risks on behalf of the general audience for whom his book is written. How many readers would be able, even with expert guidance, to read a passage - to hear a passage - from a Britten score? Besides, many books on Britten of great musicological sophistication already exist, and the expert or musician will want to seek them out. I don’t myself feel that Carpenter damages the music by reading it, through the lens of the texts it often sets, as autobiography. He does, however, make us conscious of uncomfortable dimensions in it which, knowing little of Britten’s life, we may never have considered.
Before Auden, the chief influences on Britten’s life were clearly his mother, the sound of the sea breaking on the beach at Lowestoft, and the music, example, and teaching of Frank Bridge. Mrs. Britten provided the first “warm nest of love,” adored Britten, nursed him, sang with him, and praised everything he did - which included, by the age of fourteen, twelve piano sonatas, six string quartets, pieces for violin, viola and cello, a tone poem, a symphony, an oratorio, and many songs. Early on, she conceived the notion that Britten would be the fourth “B,” after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. A fifth “B,” Bridge, provided the training in technique and attention to sincerity, clarity, and professionalism which Britten later failed to find at the Royal College of Music. By the time he got there, he was rapidly advancing beyond the abilities of his teachers. Bridge’s The Sea echoed the sound which Britten had heard from birth on the Suffolk coast, introduced him to modern music, and provided a source for the brilliant “Sea Interludes” in Peter Grimes. In an early draft of the Grimes libretto, Montague Slater wrote: “I have a father in the sea / Scolding from the tides…” Britten’s actual father, a dentist, remained rather remote and slightly sinister; Bridge scolded and encouraged, and Mrs. Britten cheered, comforted and, perhaps, made the nest of love, in Auden’s terms, “a little stifling.” But the early years seem to have been remembered as a time, as Hardy wrote in the poem which Britten set last in Winter Words, of “primal rightness…when all went well.”
If there was a violation of the rightness and innocence of Britten’s early life, it was a profound one. Carpenter makes much of Eric Crozier’s claim that Britten once told him “he had been raped by a master at school,” a version of which story Beata Mayer remembers more generally from long talks during Britten’s illness and fever at her mother’s home in 1940 as “a traumatic sexual experience” of some kind. Donald Mitchell wonders if Britten was “fantasizing” when he told the story, and warns against “building some enormous superstructure of speculation” on it. “We shall never know,” he says, “what he meant by ‘rape’, if he used the word. Nor can we summon back to life the inflection of tone or voice in which the claim was uttered.” After investigating all of the possible circumstances at South Lodge School in which such an event might have occurred, Carpenter appears, in the chapter where he first brings it up, to drop the idea as perhaps “fantasy sparked off while [Britten’s] imagination was at work on his operas.” However, it is a hypothesis to which he returns from time to time in a tentative way throughout the book, particularly when Britten’s homosexuality is at issue.
Whether the incident actually occurred or not - and it seems to me unlikely on the evidence provided in Carpenter’s text - Britten was clearly behaving like a sexually repressed, rather than a sexually traumatized, young man when he met Auden. Determined to “bring him out,” to make Britten admit his homosexuality and “throw aside all repression,” Auden wrote “Underneath the Abject Willow,” with its invitation to “Walk then, come / no longer numb / into your satisfaction.” This is a poem which Donald Mitchell feels Britten “parried,” as it were, in his setting of it “as a kind of brisk - jaunty, even - impersonal and highly mannered polka-like dance.”
Carpenter follows the strange dancing with Auden all the way from Our Hunting Fathers, a major but still infrequently performed song cycle from 1936 with texts either written or chosen by Auden; collaborations on plays and films before the sojourn to America; Paul Bunyan, a musical theatre piece which seems part Broadway, part Kurt Weill, and part anticipation of the proper operas that would come; to Auden’s place, as Carpenter would have it, in most of the operas themselves either in their treatment of the tension between “Bohemian Chaos” and “Bourgeois Order,” or in some version or other of a more specific presence - as The Tempter, for example, in The Prodigal Son, whose injunction to the son to “Act out your desires” echoes “Underneath the Abject Willow,” or in Owen Wingrave which concludes “as if Auden had suddenly returned and had again thrown down his 1942 gauntlet” when Kate accuses Owen of cowardice and “challenges him to spend the night in the haunted room” where he dies. There were not to be many polkas. Donald Mitchell finds as early as “The Dance of Death” in Our Hunting Fathers “a ferocious transformation of music hitherto associated with the hunt” brought to “the very brink of chaos and disintegration.”
The break with Auden, when it came, was permanent. Perhaps Britten sensed that further collaboration would be a kind of Dance of Death; in any case, he required more compliant librettists. He had also, shortly before his mother’s death, met Peter Pears, thus beginning one of the most remarkable collaborations in the history of music.
Carpenter says that Pears’s singing voice had an uncanny resemblance to Mrs. Britten’s. If this is so, it only reinforces what is obvious - that Pears took over the job of providing “the warm nest of love,” that he presided at the festivals of adoration, nurture, and praise. In Auden’s terms, at any rate. But Pears also seems to have seen that Britten would not “develop to his full stature” if he remained under the intellectual and emotional domination of Auden, whom he thought of as a kind of bully. After three years in America where Britten and Pears had gone at the outbreak of World War II in part for professional reasons - Britten felt he might have a bright future in the country - and in part because they were conscientious objectors, they returned with a suitcase full of compositions and plans for Peter Grimes, the opera that would establish both of them as permanent features on the British cultural map. Although often unhappy and ill in America, Britten nonetheless managed to write a good deal of music, including Les Illuminations, Sinfonia da Requiem, and the first string quartet. He also composed the first of endless pieces specifically for Pears, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, which, Carpenter says, has “been taken as a declaration of love between composer and singer” even though “its storyline portrays a restless and largely unsatisfied desire.”
While they were still in America, Auden referred to Britten and Pears as “a happily married couple,” and so they appeared to be to most people who knew them. But both were also clearly attracted to young boys, and in Britten’s case even a repressed paedophilia was a source of terrible anxiety and guilt. Those “thin-as-a-board juveniles” of whom Auden wrote moved him in a way that was neither “sexless” nor “innocent,” and had nothing to do with any evasion of “the demands of disorder.” Quite the contrary, the attraction was the greatest temptation in Britten’s life to surrender to disorder, to bohemian chaos. “Chaos and sickness,” Aschenbach mutters to himself in Myfanwy Piper’s libretto for Death in Venice, and then to Tadzio: “What if all were dead / and only we two left alive?” Ronald Duncan, Norman Del Mar, and Donald Mitchell even feel that Britten was a reluctant homosexual in adult relationships, and Duncan says he was “a man in flight from himself, who often punished others for the sin he felt he’d committed himself. He was a man on the rack.”
After Britten’s death, Pears maintained that “Ben never regarded his own passionate feelings…as anything but good, natural, and profoundly creative.” The evidence, however, seems to suggest that Pears’s account of Britten’s sexuality comes closer to describing his own relaxed and uninhibited feelings than it does those of the composer. But even if Duncan’s extreme account is accurate and Britten was “a man on the rack” who felt that his most secret and powerful longings were “sinful,” there is no doubt that his emotions were, in Pears’s terms, “profoundly creative.” He understood from the inside both innocence and the desire to destroy it, and was therefore able to embody musically both a Billy Budd and a Claggert, both a Miles and a Quint. Especially in The Turn of the Screw is the temptation to surrender to “bohemian chaos” expressed at its most seductive possible pitch. In Quint’s melismas on the single syllable of Miles’ name, we hear the uncanny voice of an unfulfilled desire.
Carpenter sees the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, with its setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” as a pivotal work. “Nowhere else,” he says, “had Britten conveyed ‘the sense of sin’ so graphically.” Not only the setting of Blake, but also that of the fifteenth-century “Lyke Wake Dirge” that follows it as a kind of dies irae in which “the tenor’s grotesque sweeps up the octave [suggest] mortal terror of judgement,” are written, Carpenter feels, directly out of an experience of “dark, secret love” which terrified the composer even as it attracted him. But if Serenade prefigured certain aspects of Peter Grimes, it is also clearer in its implications.
Grimes has fascinated and puzzled critics ever since its premier. Is Grimes a psychopath, a poet, a paedophile, a visionary, or some combination of these? Is he utterly at odds with his community, or does he seek to become a part of it? Is he in love with Ellen Orford, his apprentice, or the sea? Britten and Pears had read an essay by E. M. Forster on George Crabbe’s Peter Grimes while still in America, and the poem, the essay, and the notion that there might be an opera were factors in the decision to return to England. Grimes is set in Aldeburgh, a small town on the Suffolk coast near Britten’s native Lowestoft, and the future home of his now-famous music festival. Was Grimes to represent a homecoming, or the impossibility of ever being at home in the world - even in one’s native place? It is also worth remembering that the war had just ended, and that Britten and Pears were well known as conscientious objectors. Edmund Wilson, who attended an early performance, wrote that “at first you think that Peter Grimes is Germany. But, by the time you are done with the opera…you have decided that Peter Grimes is the whole of bombing, mining, machine-gunning, ambushing humanity which talks about a guaranteed standard of living yet does nothing but wreck its own works, degrade or pervert its own moral life and reduce itself to starvation.”
There are two famous tenors, not just one, who have made the part of Grimes their own - Peter Pears and Jon Vickers. Their interpretations are very different. Pears, who had a hand in writing the libretto and whose early notes on the plot included lines that were never set for Grimes to sing to his apprentice - “you are sweet, young…you must love me” - plays the fisherman, in Pears’s own words, “as an ordinary weak person who, being at odds with the society in which he finds himself, tries to overcome it and, in doing so, offends against the conventional code, is classed by society as a criminal, and destroyed as such.” Edmund Wilson’s remark about “a guaranteed standard of living” is more than a bleak post-war jest, for Grimes is also motivated, and encouraged by Ellen Orford, to make himself respectable, make money, become acceptable to the Borough, and set up in a household. Peter Conrad has deprecated Pears’s Grimes as “an ineffectual dreamer, beseeching the pity of his fellows” in order to praise Jon Vickers’s “barnacled prophet, a pathological martyr who defies the community rather than imploring its aid.” Interestingly, Vickers has said that he could play the “totally symbolic” figure of Grimes “as a Jew,” or “paint his face black and put him in white society,” but that he could not play Grimes as a homosexual because this “reduces him to a man in a situation with a problem.” But that problem was part of Britten’s “situation” as he moved back to Grimes’ own Suffolk, living first in Snape and later in Aldeburgh itself, intending to celebrate a homecoming with his first opera, but also, as Conrad feels, “confirming an outlawry from which he [was] seeking to be pardoned.” According to English law before 1967, Britten was, of course, a criminal. Living as an open, if discreet and largely domestic-minded homosexual, he could perfectly well have been prosecuted.
After the next two operas, The Rape of Lucrecia and Albert Herring, were written and taken on tour, Britten and Pears conceived the idea of creating the festival in Aldeburgh. Not only did Britten establish a household with Pears where even Ellen Orford might have been a contented guest, but from this point on Aldeburgh would also be his Music Center, the place where a man in many ways at odds with society - as pacifist, homosexual, and obsessive artist - would attempt to integrate himself and his work by “imploring aid” and seeking to “make himself acceptable” to his community, but also by challenging that community to pardon outlawry by, as it were, legalizing and licensing its fullest artistic expression. It is a strange paradox; it is as if Peter Grimes had been elected mayor.
The festival provides a setting in which Carpenter can portray, over the years, the actions and attitudes of those two sides of Britten one might call “Good Ben” and “Bad Ben.” “Good Ben” charmed and delighted everyone, especially in the early years of the festival, and some who knew him well - Janet Baker and Mstislav Rostropovic, for example - seem only to have seen this side of him. “Bad Ben,” on the other hand, appeared, in Auden’s terms, determined “to make others suffer.” Joan Cross, an early colleague says, “He just used people, and he finished with them, and that was that.” Stephen Reiss, perhaps Britten’s most conspicuous victim, felt that Britten’s cruelty was linked in some way to sexual frustration.
The early days of the Aldeburgh festival must have been remarkable. I began to attend it myself only in the 1960s after the concert hall had been built at the Snape maltings, but even then one got a sense of what the initial excitement, informality, and charm of it all must have been like at performances that were still being given in the old Jubilee Hall and the local churches. Britten, of course, was not only a director of the festival but an active participant. He made much of his impact as a performer and conductor, and both his virtuoso skills as Pears’s accompanist and his brilliant conducting of his own and other composers’ works were always part of the Aldeburgh experience. The local community - and later on a range of wealthy patrons - supported and attended some events that were easy to understand and aimed at giving listeners uncomplicated musical pleasures, but also new and demanding works by Britten himself and other contemporaries. Britten, Pears, and the musicians who came to perform were accessible and eager to please, and by all accounts people experienced something magical in Britten’s presence. Janet Baker talks about a sensation “almost like [that] of being in love,” and Robert Tear remembers “those times when Ben was so wonderfully charming that when he spoke to me the world seemed to stop.” And it was not only fellow musicians like Baker and Tear who felt this; people who were employed by Britten, ordinary Aldeburgh residents, children, even fishermen like his friend Billy Burrell report, in the early days, similar reactions.
Carpenter says that those who worked with Britten thought that a change in the nature of the festival, and perhaps in Britten himself, could be felt from about 1953, which was the year in which Gloriana was first performed. Although Carpenter’s reading of that opera as a “continuing private debate, an examination of the choices an artist has to make…and a self-portrait and examination of the stresses experienced by a public figure such as [Britten] had now become” seems at first a bit far-fetched for a story, after all, about Elizabeth and Essex, such an interpretation should not be dismissed out of hand. Janet Baker, for all her affection for Britten, says that she could not ever be put entirely at her ease, that “being with Britten was a bit like being with the Queen”; and Stephen Reiss, speaking of his forced resignation as Aldeburgh Festival general manager in 1971 remarks chillingly “that had it been in Elizabethan times, he would quite happily have had me murdered.”
The catalogue of cruelties committed by “Bad Ben” while “Good Ben” continued doing his best to compose, perform, conduct, and be a responsible citizen rather than an autocratic monarch is depressingly long. To begin with, his musical standards were extremely high and he would frequently find that a colleague, often one who had been a close friend, was no longer meeting them. Musicians were dismissed, soloists not invited back, former proteges dropped without a word, singers cut dead in the street, an ailing member of the orchestra verbally abused from the podium. Librettists, in particular, had a rough time - Auden, Montague Slater, Ronald Duncan, Eric Crozier, E. M. Forster, and William Plomer all being replaced in their turn with little thanks and no warning. In a book on Britten carefully supervised by the composer himself, Imogen Holst omits any reference at all to Salter, Duncan, or Crozier. Crozier, not only a librettist, but a founding father of both the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival, felt that Britten always had “a particular favorite upon whom he would lavish affection, while foreseeing with a grim kind of pleasure the day when that special friend would be cast off.” Britten told Crozier that Montague Slater was “one of [his] corpses,” adding that Crozier himself would “be one, too, one day.” Even Auden, to the end of his life, referred to Britten’s break with him as “a permanent grief.”
Instead of the sense of generous inclusion that most people appeared to feel in the early years of the festival, there was now a sense of exclusion. George Malcolm speaks of “an organization called The Club. It consisted of people who used to sing or play for Ben.” The old feeling of community diminished both among those who came to play or sing and those who came to listen. Meanwhile, Britten, Pears, and whoever was temporarily part of the entourage sometimes looked, as Robert Tear caricatures them, like “Pope, King, a couple of sycophantic academics and perhaps a handmaiden or two strewing palms.” Tear sums up the atmosphere of Aldeburgh as he found it in the later years as “weird, personal, unhealthy, obsessive, perhaps incestuous, but above all these seductive.” He remembers a place characterized by “waspishness, bitterness, cold, hard eyes…cabalistic meetings…secrecy.” Of Britten, he says, “there was a great, huge abyss in his soul.”
It is in the context of these accounts and others like them that Carpenter takes up in great detail Britten’s infatuation with boys - with David Spencer, Ronald Duncan’s son Roger, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, David Hemmings, Ronan Magill, and others. He quotes Gathorne-Hardy, now an author who has written much about the complexities of sexual experience, to explain that in spite of Britten’s devotion to Pears, his greatest passion may have been for these boys: “It’s a common homosexual situation,” Gathorne-Hardy argues, “when their passions are in one place, and their hearts and affections in another.” And so it becomes a central thesis of this book that Britten’s passion, although never acted on beyond the hugs, pats, and goodnight kisses which the boys, grown up, have been happy to describe to Carpenter, was for children; and that desire, deeply felt but in the end repressed, produced the contradictions in Britten’s character and determined the nature of his work.
The passion twisted, yet also sustained, Britten’s Peter Pan characteristics which Auden reflected in the second part of Hymn to St. Cecilia, and in a strange way may actually have made possible the remarkable music which he wrote for children, without, as Nancy Evans has said, ever writing down for them. In works like The Little Sweep, Noye’s Fludde, The Golden Vanity, and Children’s Crusade; in parts like Miles’s in The Turn of the Screw, Isaac’s in Abraham and Isaac, and the boy’s spirit in Curlew River; and in writing for choirs or small groups of boys in Spring Symphony, War Requiem, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the repertory of music written for young voices is expanded beyond measure. Britten, says Donald Mitchell, “does not cheat by writing music for [children] that is isolated from the music he writes for adults. He skilfully takes account of their talents as performers…but his real respect for them shows in his insistence on being no less himself in [works like] Vanity than in a work of grander proportions.”
Both Eric Crozier’s unpublished memoir quoted extensively by Carpenter and Tony Palmer’s television film about Britten, A Time There Was, suggest that the boy whom Britten most passionately sought was perhaps ultimately always himself as a child - “a kind of idealized [self] at the age of ten or twelve, the gay, attractive, charming young Lowestoft boy,” as Crozier says. The treatment both of innocence and the compulsion to destroy it in many of the works of his middle and later years may well reflect Britten’s sense both of what he had done to himself by the life he had led, and the singing child still alive in him and father of the man who found its image in choristers, boy trebles, prodigies, poets who died young, midsummer dreams, ghost stories, plays, parables, and the children of his friends. If this was fundamentally a kind of narcissism, his relentless examination of it in his work made it socially responsible and, finally, essentially religious. He did not, after all, abuse young children; instead, he wrote great music. His last Canticle, the fifth, is a setting of Eliot’s “Death of St. Narcissus”:
By the river
His eyes were aware
of the pointed corners of his eyes
And his hands aware
of the pointed tips of his fingers
Struck down by such knowledge
He could not live men’s ways,
but became a dancer before God….
Knowing at the end
the taste of his own whiteness,
the horror of his own smoothness
…he became a dancer of God.
The journey from the polkas with Auden to dancing before God was a long and exhausting one. Along the way, there were moments when the youthful exuberance of the Piano Concerto and Les Illuminations returned, notably in the Spring Symphony and The Prince of the Pagodas, and there were some fine compositions that are not amenable to autobiographical readings - the cello suites, sonata, and Cello Symphony written for Rostropovich, the Harp Suite, the Metamorphoses for oboe. But Britten’s most characteristic work remained driven, in one way or another, by language, and the texts he found among the poets and required from his librettists produce a sequence of major works in The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, War Requiem, Curlew River, Death in Venice, and several of the song cycles and Canticles in which Carpenter is able to follow the theme of innocence and its loss to an autobiographical resolution in music which grows increasingly austere in its economy of means, and increasingly direct in its treatment of Britten’s engagement with the demands of disorder.
Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream represent a similar temptation. Donald Mitchell has said that beneath the etiquette of the court and the “escape from the carnal enchantments of the wood” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we are beckoned by the music’s covert life - its “audible sexual delirium.” Quint tells Miles that he is “all things strange” in whom “secrets and half-formed desires meet,” and so indeed is Oberon - a counter-tenor with a coloratura soprano for a consort - who, like Quint, is a supernatural being who desires to possess a human boy, whose home key is E flat and whose characteristic singing is melismatic. By the time Britten wrote Curlew River, however, the glissando recalling Miles’ response to Quint is the disembodied voice of a Madwoman’s dead child telling her to “go her way in peace” and that “the dead shall rise again.” That is also what the choral settings of the mass in War Requiem tell the baritone and tenor singing Wilfred Owen’s poems: Requiescant in pace. Even Tadzio says as much - although he neither speaks nor sings - dancing before Aschenbach, but also before God.
I happened to attend the premier of Death in Venice at Aldeburgh in 1973. At the time, I had no idea how ill the composer had been as he worked on his opera, that he had delayed surgery on his failing heart in order to complete it, that the operation had not been successful, or that he turned off his radio that night, unable to listen to the BBC broadcast in his house a couple of miles from the concert hall in Snape. He lived for three more years and wrote a few more works, including a valedictory string quartet, his third, that quotes extensively from Death in Venice. Was he himself Tadzio as much as he was Aschenbach? Was he Billy Budd, Miles, Isaac, the Madwoman’s son, Owen’s doomed youth? In Winter Words, his Thomas Hardy cycle which I mentioned earlier, he concludes with a setting of “Before Life and After”:
A time there was - as one may guess
And as, indeed,
earth’s testimonies tell -
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.
None suffered sickness, love or loss,
None knew regret,
starved hope, or heartburnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.
“But,” the poem concludes, “the disease of feeling germed, / And primal rightness / took the tinct of wrong.” Like Grimes, like Claggert and Quint, like Aschenbach, Britten experienced the germing of his feeling, and followed in his way, and up to a point, its logic. During the composition of Death in Venice, Pears told Sidney Nolan that “Ben is writing an evil opera, and it’s killing him.” At the end of it, recalling Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, Aschenbach delineates Britten’s dilemma in his life and work:
Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus?
Yes, but through the senses.
Can poets take this way then
For senses lead to passion, Phaedrus.
Passion leads to knowledge
Knowledge to forgiveness
To compassion with the abyss.
Should we then reject it, Phaedrus,
The wisdom poets crave,
Seeking only form and pure detachment
Simplicity and discipline?
But this is beauty, Phaedrus
Discovered through the senses
And senses lead to passion, Phaedrus
And passion to the abyss.
Although it’s Myfanwy Piper’s libretto, the basic terms of Auden’s letter written to Britten so many years before would still seem to be relevant. I should conclude by addressing a final point, the common objection to Britten’s later work anticipated earlier when I mentioned its austerity and economy of means. With the War Requiem excepted, we observe a tendency in his music analogous to that in Auden’s later poetry - a determination to hold prodigious virtuosity in check, chasten the expression of emotion, narrow the focus of attention, eschew the inessential, and counter the romantic expectations of an audience. The small orchestras of the chamber operas shrink to seven or eight musicians in the church parables; Grimes’s robust singing in his meditative moods becomes Aschenbach’s recitativo secco; rich instrumental writing grows severe, abstemious, ascetic. “Too many notes,” complains Peter Schaffer’s Joseph II upon hearing Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio; Britten’s critics said there were too few. But Britten’s response, I feel sure, would have been exactly that of Mozart in Amadeus: “There are just as many notes, neither more nor less, as are required.” Although both biographical and musicological arguments have been advanced to explain, lament, or (sometimes) praise the later work, one finally reaches the point when it is necessary to say - Go and listen to it. Nicholas Spice in his review of Carpenter convicts the mature style of anemia: “The bloodlessness of fear, on one hand, and the bloodlessness of idealized innocence, on the other.” T. W. Adorno was the cruelest of all, calling Britten’s music “the apotheosis of meagerness.” But go and listen to it.
When Britten died, I wondered for a day or two what sort of elegy Auden would have written had he been alive to write it. Then I wrote my own, for a program on the BBC, trying to answer Adorno and trying to make it seem at least in some respects, in Auden’s absence, Audenesque. I’d like to put it in the record.
Operas! A feast for burghers, said Adorno.
And of your work: The apotheosis
Of meagerness, a kind of fast. That’s
A cruel case against you
And it may have weight, in time.
But let’s call meagerness
And call the bourgeoisie the people
Who like me have (barely) what it costs
To listen and who like to hear
These songs, but who will pay a price.
Economies of living soon enough
Make meager even music of the spheres!
To be of use, you said.
Directly and deliberately I write
For human beings. And not
Posterity - for which the general outlook
Isn’t very bright.
A tenor mourns. And you lie down in Aldeburgh
One last time. But you have work to do
In spite of what the two of us have said.
A tenor sings. When you
Get out there over the horizon
This December morning with the likes
Of Peter Grimes,
Row your shining boat ashore
And be extravagant in song:
Leave economy to the ungrateful living
Who will need it, whose Justice
And whose History have multiplied unendingly
Expenses by Apotheoses by Sublimes.