Britten and the love that dare speaks its name

dustjacket of Kildea's book Benjamin britten a life in the twentieth century

Britten at 100

As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), the English composer, conductor and pianist, the following website, Britten 100, details all of the celebratory activities occurring over the year throughout the world. This link directs you to performances of his work. In addition to the performances, there been several new publications to coincide with his centenary that have been added to the Music Library’s collection. Earlier this year, Paul Kildea’s Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century caught the attention of national newspapers with its provocative finding that Britten suffered from undiagnosed syphilis, which was only discovered by surgeons whilst undertaking a heart operation towards the end of his life. This was refuted categorically by the cardiologist who cared for Britten in the final years of his life. As it was undiagnosed and left untreated for many years, Kildea’s claim opens up speculation of fidelity between Britten and his longterm partner in life and music, the tenor, Peter Pears (1910-1986). Kildea launched a defence of his claim following the Guardian’s interview with Michael Petch, Britten’s carer.

It is unclear whether the maxim ‘all publicity is good publicity’ translates into increased sales for its author and  image is snapshot and link to the BBC interview with author Paul Kildeapublisher. Certainly the discourse has helped promote the circulation statistics for Kildea’s book, which has been out on loan since it was acquired earlier this year. It should be noted that with this notoriety, his biography is a paean and not a scorched earth tribute. Kildea served as the Director of the Aldeburgh Festival (which Britten and Pears founded) for several years and was interviewed by the BBC on his book. In this 8 minute clip, he is questioned on the allegation of Britten’s affliction by syphilis and his adoration of boys. What could serve as further sensational points by other biographers (such as that of Humphrey Carpenter, is not glossed over by Kildea.

The Platonic longing for youth to reinvigorate the body and soul might be viewed in a suspicious manner these days. One need only think of Michael Jackson in recent years. However, in Britten’s case, not a single boy ever came forward. After his death there were several interviews with several of these youths who were fawned over by Britten and not a single one said he behaved improperly. Britten did not cross that line into paedophilia. Whether it was out of longing for innocence or for his own youth, desire remained just that: desire. His outlet was his compositions which channelled that desire into the ghost-like children in The Turn of the Screw or the use of boy’s choir in the War Requiem or his Missa Brevis.  

Whilst Kildea’s contribution is useful, I find it less important who slept with whom and who was unfaithful. What emerges from his biography and in the new volume of letters (below) is the importance of Britten’s partnership with Pears.

The love that dare speaks its name

From the very first work written for him Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo to the various roles in his operas: Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, culminating in Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Britten would build the various roles around the tessitura and colour of Pear’s voice. Even when commissioned by instrumentalists like the great horn player Denis Brain, Britten still managed to feature Pears in the resulting work, Serenade for tenor, horn and strings.

Certainly the classical music world is filled with composers and their inspirational muses. Mozart wrote specific operatic roles for the soprano Caterina Cavalieri (allegedly Salieri’s mistress) in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  What is remarkable about Britten and Pears is that they held to their beliefs when it was clearly unfashionable to do so. They were homosexuals in a post-Victorian-Oscar Wilde-trial world and pacifists in the midst of the Second World War throwing their inspiration and adoration into such creative works as if to rise about the current tide of nationalism and patriotism.

A ‘gay’ composer?

Although the Britten scholar, Donald Mitchell, noted that Britten never referred to himself as being ‘gay’, the social construction of sexual identity played a huge part in the second half of the twentieth century, despite Britten’s self-lack of labelling. (I do not mean to endorse tacitly homosexual identity solely as a social constructionism and view it personally weighted toward essentialism.)

Would Britten feel differently in the second decade of the 21st century where the government is on track to introduce marriage equality for same-sex couples into law next year? Perhaps, perhaps not.  The institution of marriage (and I am referring to the civil institution and distinguishing it from the religious one although they are one and the same for some) with its 50/50 survival rate leads some younger heterosexual couples to wish they had access to a different institution like the ‘PACS’ (Pacte civil de solidarité) which is available to hetero- and homosexual couples cohabiting in France and the equivalent of a civil partnership, the current legal instrument to recognise same-sex couples in the U.K.)

As Foucault espoused the view that homosexuals were outsiders in relation to the orthodoxy of heterosexuality, there was the potential to alter the available range of sexual relations and activity between individuals.  If marriage was equated with heterosexuality for Foucault, why would homosexuals have any need for it?  Whilst I admire many things in Foucault and am no traditionalist, I did get married in a ceremony at City Hall (a civil marriage) in the state of Massachusetts and this is where my essentialist side enters.  If homosexuals have existed for time immemorial, why shouldn’t the institutions of the State be made available to them? My husband and I felt that civil unions were not enough and we did want a civil ‘marriage’ which had the stamp of validation from the State. A parallel system of all the rights but not in name, seems to invoke a ‘separate but equal’ mindset which at its fundamental level is unequal.  (Again this is in a civil marriage context, not one undertaken in a religious institution.) Perhaps some of Foucault’s ideas percolated into the English public school mentality of Britten? This might provide some answer to Kildea’s speculation about their fidelity.  Although they were together, it might imply a more ‘open’ view of the relationship between the two men. Uninhibited by the institution of marriage, they could define the parameters of their own relationship.

the New Musicology

I’m not going to venture out on a limb to guess what Britten would’ve felt about gay marriage in the 21st century as sexual identity is a complex sociological beast conflated with the construction of ‘self’ and (for some) with religious identity.   That we can discuss it in musicological terms is tribute to the influence of Foucault and other post-structuralists, which elevated the understanding of the role of gender and sexuality into what is referred to as the ‘New Musicology.’ Indeed it was one of the New Musicologist proponents, Philip Brett, who along with Susan McClary have clearly articulated the impact and role sexual identity play in the meaning and understanding of a composer’s work. Most of the key biographical entries on Britten’s life in Oxford Music Online were authored by Philip Brett.  (Access Oxford Music Online with your library card.)  Brett’s other key writings can be found in his collection of essays: Music and sexuality in Britten.

The broadening of musicology to borrow and draw upon techniques from the social sciences was essential and necessary. It may be difficult to extrapolate these constructs of sexual identity such as homosexuality in earlier periods, but it is part of the established social fabric in the twentieth century. It may not be widely discussed at the time or we are only beginning to understand how it is manifested in the works of composers like Aaron Copland or Maurice Ravel, but it is central to the Britten/Pears partnership.

Britten’s letters

dustjacket of the book selected letters from a life volume 6Perhaps with less juicy titillation, the sixth and final volume of Britten’s letters was also launched. Letters from a Life: the Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976 covers the final decade of his life from 1966-1976, covering creative works of the period including Phaedra, Owen Wingrave and the epic Death in Venice and artists and collaborators like the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, singers Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and composers from Oliver Knussen, Dmitri Shostakovich and William Walton.

We have to thank and acknowledge Donald Mitchell for the push to get the entire series off the ground back in the early ‘90s along with current editors Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke for the herculean task in their selection. As a series the set is more than a thousand pages and as Britten never threw anything away, there is a wealth of primary material here. Beyond the contacts with musical and royal luminaries, the letters provide a cultural picture of life in the twentieth century. If Kildea’s biography is to draw attention with its assertion of undiagnosed tertiary syphilis, and the implied infidelity between the two, then those in Letters from a Life offer a distinctive personal and immediate contrast.

1973-74 a difficult season

After the successful premiere of Death in Venice at Aldeburgh in June 1973, the Metropolitan Opera in New York planned to give the American premiere the following season with Pears in the same protagonist role of Aschenbach and give him his Met debut (at the plum age of 64).  After problems from the heart surgery undertaken the previous year, Britten was not well enough to travel transatlantically to attend the rehearsals and the performances so was separated from Pears for this three month period. After years of being by each other’s side, what follows is an exchange between the two which sums up what the two meant to each other and for the works and roles which were respectively composed and then fully realised. Pears left for New York City on 29 September 1974 with the debut taking place on 18 October and would not be returning to England until Christmas after the performances.

Britten writes Pears in a letter dated 17 November 1974:

I feel I must write a squiggle which I couldn’t say on the telephone without bursting into those silly tears—I do love you so terribly, & not only glorious you but your singing. I’ve just listened to a re-broadcast of Winter Words and honestly you are the greatest artist that ever was—every nuance, subtle & never overdone—those great words, so sad & wise, painted for one, that heavenly sound you make, full but always coloured for words & music. What have I done to deserve such an artist and man to write for? (VI, Letter 1401, p.645)

Pears replies from New York in a letter to Britten postmarked 21 November:

Love is blind—and what your dear eyes do not see is that it is you who have given me everything, right from the beginning, from yourself in Grand Rapids! Through Grimes & Serenade & Michelangelo and Canticles—one thing after another—right up to this great Aschenbach. I am here as your mouthpiece and I live in your music—And I can never be thankful enough to you and to Fate for all the heavenly joy we have had together for 35 years. (VI, p.646)

To be separated such a long period of time in the autumn years of their lives would be a challenge. Factor in the frailty of Britten’s health and you begin to see beneath the veils and layers of their relationship.  We are given a privileged and precious insight into this partnership and what it meant for each of them to be in each other’s lives for over three decades.

Even though I support the expansion of the tenets used  in the New Musicology and the insights it can provide, does knowledge of infidelity resulting in syphilis really add a new dimension to our understanding of their sexuality? The love that they shared is evident in those letters. Their intrinsic homosexuality and the mutually creative bond it forged as a couple and as artists is the aspect most worthy of study and analysis. In the end, that is what is ‘sensational’ about them: not in the tabloid sense but in that which is celebrated and exceptional.

See Britten in the Library, around London (and farther abroad)

As this article has contrasted  some of the recent scholarship on Britten, it is a small snapshot of the Music Library’s vast holdings with hundreds of materials on him. You can browse through these materials (starting from the most recent.) Although he composed for all genres including orchestral, vocal, chamber and solo works, Britten’s dramatic and operatic output stands apart from his other British counterparts in the twentieth century due to the volume of performances and recordings.
image is a snapshot and link to the English National Opera production of Death in Venice

Next month English National Opera will perform his final opera, Death in Venice at the Colliseum (Friday 14 June – Wednesday 26 June 2013).  Adapted from the novella of Thomas Mann, the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach, is an aging writer who goes to look for inspiration for a new work in Venice and encounters a young boy toy, Tadzio, who fires his imagination.  Highlighting some of Britten’s finest writing for Pears, the character Aschenbach serves as a perfect foil for Britten’s lifelong admiration of the young male, but like the elderly protagonist, does not act upon those desires.  Have a preview by watching the Library DVD beforehand. Follow along with the score and read some essays on his opera compiled to enhance your understanding. One further notable study is Arnold Whittall’s analysis which contrasts chronologically Britten’s output side by side that of Michael Tippett.

Not to be outdone by ENO, the Royal Opera House is performing his Gloriana which they commissioned to mark the coronation of HRH Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.  Performances will be between 20 June and 6 July 2013.  The Music library has a variety of materials on Gloriana.


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