Great Britten remembered
Benjamin Britten, A Life in the Twentieth Century
Paul Kildea, Allen Lane, 660 pps, hb, £30
This year, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Benjamin Britten is being commemorated, and I doubt that there is a single programme planner, orchestral or operatic conductor, singer or chamber recitalist who has not included at least one work in their schedule by, what must be, the most prolific composer ever to have lived and worked on this island. Britten’s astonishing capacity for hard work, his creative vigour, and his uncanny ability and facility for setting dramatic ideas or verse; for getting underneath notes, words and straight to the heart of the musical matter, made him one of the most formidable cultural figures of our time – or rather, a time there was, the 20th century. This year of musical celebration has seen Britten turned into an almost cult figure: CDs and books by the score, and they even sell Britten-Pears cufflinks at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall shop – not to mention Southwold-brewed “Native Britten” Adnams ale in the bar at this most beautifully-situated of all concert venues.
But possibly the landmark, flagship work to have emerged from this flurry and flourish of performance, publishing, research, rediscovery and composer-worship is the biography by Paul Kildea, a musician and a writer who clearly believes that Britten (with a partial exception made for 17th-century England’s Henry Purcell) is this country’s greatest musical product. His case is very strong, and the biography – with nearly 50 pages of notes, not to mention meticulous detail concerning Britten’s works, relationships with fellow artists, inspirations, and day-to-day life (even favourite foods, books, houses, cars) – is a work of huge quality and achievement.
Nothing about this book is dry or in any way “technical” – the sort of book which only musicologists would like. Instead, it seems to go a little way beyond the usual biographical formula used for an artist or great man, by telling the day-to-day story of its subject (whose somewhat reclusive life has been shrouded in East Anglian mists) as a person with many ordinary conservative tastes – liking straightforward food and beer; fond of walking the coastline, watching birds, and buying fish and vegetables from the Aldeburgh locals; who, in youth, rejected Britain for America, and then returned, consumed by homesickness; who felt that a conscientious objector (which Britten was) could defeat an invader by showing him a better example of how to live, yet who – as a sort of unofficial court composer – Companion of Honour, Order of Merit, and in 1976, a Life Peer – effortlessly entertained the Queen, the innately military Duke of Edinburgh, and the Queen Mother at his Festival. Artistic associates on the Left of the political spectrum, such as librettist, Montagu Slater, did not approve.
I read much of this biography whilst on holiday in Britten’s home county of Suffolk, a process which lent itself to my thoughts and note-taking, finding a great part of the story of the composer’s life curiously comforting: photographs, for example, of The Old Mill at Snape (now a B&B), Crag House on the Aldeburgh seafront, and the famous Red House testifying to a liking for home and domesticity; and it was also instructive and enjoyable to savour Paul Kildea’s inclusion of descriptions of what Britten liked to drink, and (from a 1971 magazine article on the favourite food of artistic celebrities) the menu and diet he favoured – “a bone of good English sirloin, simmered for three hours with plenty of onions, celery and carrots.” Imogen Holst who worked as Britten’s assistant …
listed the meals and the calendar of drinks consumed at Crag House: fine red wine most often, but champagne and spirits for Britten’s thirty-ninth birthday party in November 1952… cider if sunny, the odd glass of sherry during the day or before the cinema, a Guinness after physical exertion, and Drambuie or rum or cognac as a nightcap after taxing rehearsals or frustrating meetings.
Yet the biography also reveals the ruthless side to the musician’s character: his impatience with musical life in England, and his belief that an amateurishness ran through it; the anger and resentment, and failure, which clouded the Royal Gala performance of his coronation opera, Gloriana (an attempt to create in Lord Harewood’s words, a “national opera”); his tempers and depressions; and the creation of his own artistic court on the Suffolk coast, from which individuals could be excluded if they happened to make the wrong remark – such as the uncomfortable moment when conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras made a silly, ill-advised, but hardly end-of-the-world ‘homophobic’ remark during a rehearsal, only to be summoned to Britten’s study and excommunicated.
The biography is entitled, A Life in the Twentieth Century, and although Britten did make great utterances on the great themes of the day – such as in his passionately pacifist War Requiem – the composer, like many intellectuals, emerges as a figure curiously detached from real-life involvement. For example, his emotions were stirred by the Spanish Civil War (a curious thing for a pacifist) yet he played no part in it, not even as a placard-waver in this country. Even the Second World War seems not to have touched Britten directly, save for the occasional discomfort or tedious train journey; and when the Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik, asked Britten to sign a letter condemning the Soviet invasion of his country, the Englishman declined any public role in the protest. It would have been extremely interesting if Paul Kildea could have told us what Britten’s views were on Suez, the “winds of change”, post-war immigration, Edward Heath and the Common Market, the three-day week – even the rise of pop music etc. Yet we still know little of what the composer of church parables for Orford Church and operas for Covent Garden thought about ordinary life in this country, in the 20th century.
Perhaps it was the case that Britten, as a creative artist devoted to music, had a phobia for such activities, confrontations and antagonisms – and this would seem to be the case, as was shown by the unsettling incident when relations were broken off with his one-time friend and collaborator, Lord Harewood, a cousin of the Queen and the first President of the Aldeburgh Festival. In 1964, Lord Harewood fathered a child by a mistress, something which appalled Britten, especially as he was also a close friend of his patron’s wife. When Harewood appeared backstage at a concert in Holland to greet his old friend, Britten rushed out of the stage door in order to avoid any form of contact. So disturbed was he by Harewood’s appearance that Britten’s driver had to stop the car on the way home, so that the composer could be sick at the side of the road.
There are other odd things which the biography reveals; how, on a trip to India, the socially-conscious Britten enjoyed the hospitality of officials, almost adopting the character of the British Raj (tea in the garden of the Governor’s House while a military band played Gilbert and Sullivan); and how, at the 1949 premiere of his Spring Symphony in Holland, he was photographed with enthusiastic audience member Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (Monty in uniform, Ben in white tie and tails, both beaming with smiles) – yet Kildea suggesting that the composer was annoyed that the General had come at all. Britten also railed against Churchill’s conspicuous consumption of turkey, ham, steaks and strawberries at the 1945 Potsdam conference, “when all around are the stricken enemy people, hungry and facing greater hunger” – but the biography tells us of Britten’s visit to Russia, as a guest of Rostropovich and Shostakovich…
The sabbatical, such as it was, continued in August, Britten and Pears travelling to Armenia with the Rostropoviches… Vishnevskaya [Rostropovich’s wife] had worried about what she could possibly feed her guests if they stayed in Moscow, the supply and type of food being what it was. ‘Where could I find edible steaks for them, and fresh fish?’ It seemed an unlikely concern for the most privileged Soviets, who furnished their dacha with aquariums and kitchenware and Irish linen from Harrods, and who dined in private rooms in local restaurants on caviar, borscht and grilled whole chicken, all washed down with vodka and Turkish coffee… They lived on Cognac and vodka: and ate simple food: sturgeon every third meal, stuffed tomatoes, aubergine and fruit.
Another important aspect of the biography concerns Britten’s opinions of English music and his fellow composers, and it has to be said that Kildea seems to use the book as something of a platform for his own general criticism of our musical establishment. However, the author puts his view with great wit: here is a very amusing description of one of Britten’s teachers, John Ireland:
Ireland was undoubtedly a melancholic figure; in photographs he looks sad, almost deflated – a Trollopian vicar without a parish.
And there are plenty of other barbed, but well-written – and funny – moments; although the disdain shown for what Kildea calls England’s “feeble conductor knights” (Wood, Sargent and Boult) is something that lovers of English music will want to challenge, especially as it was Sir Malcolm Sargent who popularised Britten’s music (The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) through the famous 1946 film, Instruments of the Orchestra, and Sir Henry Wood who championed Britten’s Piano Concerto, giving its first performance at the 1938 Proms. Perhaps it was the case that Sargent and Boult “played safe” with their repertoire, and now appear as somewhat reactionary figures; but it is worth remembering that Britten showed no reluctance to employ another tweed-wearing conductor-knight of conservative, Wagnerian tastes, Sir Reginald Goodall – who in 1939 had joined the British Union of Fascists (a fact not mentioned by Kildea).
The biographer also dismisses the “so-called English musical renaissance” of the Elgar-Parry years and standards in our orchestral playing during the inter-war period; even though it was that self-motivated former naval officer, Boyd Neel, who with his own string orchestra, gave the dazzling first performance of Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at the 1937 Salzburg Festival – the event which gained Britten international prominence. We should also remember that it was Frank Bridge (“largely forgotten today” says Kildea – even though his music has, in recent years, undergone a considerable renaissance) who was Britten’s earliest mentor; and without Bridge – described by musicologist and composer, Anthony Payne, as both a conservative and revolutionary – the Benjamin Britten we know might not have emerged.
Apart from ideological quibbles with Britten’s great biographer, I have to say how much I devoured and enjoyed this beautifully-produced edition; learning much about BB’s last years, months and hours (and the nature of the illness and disease that did for him); his early life and family; his lifelong collaborative relationship with the tenor, Peter Pears; the astonishing amounts of money he earned (nearly three-quarters of a million pounds in the early 1960s alone); and such days of achievement as the 1967 opening of the Snape Maltings, and the terrible night of tragedy two years later when this unique concert hall by reeds and marshes was (apart from its brick walls) destroyed by fire – the composer vowing to rebuild his hall, and doing so.
Above all, Kildea sets a mood and atmosphere, and his description of the Snape opening on that bright June day, 46 years ago, brings to life the people and places which shaped one of our most remarkable composers…
The Queen and Prince Philip lunched with Britten, Pears and some appropriately titled guests at The Red House, all overseen by Barbara [Britten’s sister]. They then drove to Snape, passing by the Old Mill – another Britten rebuilding project, from another lifetime – and into the grounds of the new concert hall. The Queen inspected the auditorium, with its beautiful honeyed timber ceiling and Victorian redbrick walls, and then looked out over the marshy expanse to Aldeburgh. The audience stood for the national anthem in Britten’s arrangement for chorus and orchestra, which starts as a hushed prayer – basses rumbling around the bottom of the texture like Chaliapin – before exploding in riotous jubilation in the second verse, as befits the words: ‘O Lord our God arise/Scatter her enemies…’
I cannot recall reading a better, more engrossing biography – and not just of a composer – for a very long time. Paul Kildea’s work deserves the highest accolade, but I recommend that you read it with Britten’s music playing quietly in the background; if you are anywhere near the Suffolk coast and country in which Britten found the essence of his inspiration, your enjoyment of the book will assume a different dimension.
STUART MILLSON is the QR‘s Classical Music Editor
NB Paul Kildea refers to a minor composer, by the name of Walford Haydn. We would be grateful to any reader who can furnish us with information on this figure, whose name is unfamiliar to us.