In a sense, Benjamin Britten was a composer three times over: the genius who wrote the notes, the pianist who played as only a composer can play, aware of the music's structure and conjuring up the sound of the orchestra, and the conductor making music sound as though the ink were still dry. From the young man's hair-breadth daring brilliance through all the operas, songs of all kinds and instrumental pieces through to the last delicate look backs in tenderness. He could make magic at the keyboard in such a way as to cause Gerald Moore declare that he was the best accompanist there was. His playing at those operatic programmes where his Verdi was so compelling or the time when he played the opening bar's eight repeated chord of C minor of Fauré's Elégie before Fournier entered made one hold one's breath in sheer wonder. As a conductor he could raise a storm in The Hebrides that was shatteringly dramatic whilst his Mozart G minor Symphony was tragic in the extreme (with all possible repeats it took nearly three-quarters of an hour – heavenly length).
Ben was a competitive chap: he wanted to be the best, he was modest in a way but sought to be the best. Generally, he was the best, even running the Aldeburgh Festival (how many other administrators could read a balance sheet as well as an orchestral score?) He was a good driver of fast cars (a sparky Jensen previous to a more sedate Rolls), he played tennis well with a vicious swerving serve that could only be received in the netting, he played croquet and even Happy Families (although Shostakovich won on his Christmas visit to Aldeburgh – I think Ben must have allowed his guest to win). On the other hand Ben admired people who did things as well as himself, in different fields mind you, as witness his duets with Richter or Rostropovich, Vishnievskaya. There has never in musical history been a love-match that produced so much music as Ben wrote for Peter Pears, at least eight song cycles and ten operas – from Grimes in 1945 to Death in Venice in 1973. The preponderance of subject matter relating to the corruption of innocence and sympathy for the oppressed must have had a lot to do with Ben's own experience, mainly because he was a homosexual. It may have been that he was always looking back to his childhood years.
Britten believed his task was to write music for the living, to be useful to his fellow beings. Like Mozart, most of his music was composed with certain voices or instrumentalist in mind. he tailored the notes for the singers, for example, knowing which were the best ones wide, intervals or narrow, which parts of the voice 'spoke' best, was the singer better at quick music or slow; all the individually of the original singer is so much encapsulated in music that it amounts almost to a portrait of their particular voice. The music composed especially for Fischer Dieskau, Vyvyan, Baker, Mandikian, Vishnievskaya, Ferrier and Pears above all, still sounds like those singers even when others perform it. Britten also knew exactly how any instrumentalist was going to produce any note he wrote for him or her; which finger, methods of bowing, blowing, striking, pedalling, which string; you ignore his written indications at your peril. (By the way, none of this means that it is easy to perform: it is always possible though). Did he ever make a boo-boo in his orchestration? Just once, and he joked about it, it was so rare: he wrote a low note for the piccolo in Billy Budd which is off the instrument's range.
Ben had charisma. He had the manner of a diffident prep school master, (clothes to match – a sports coat, grey bags à l'anglaise), speaking voice beguiling which the microphone distorted, it came out a bit like Prince Charles. He could charm you if he wanted something or liked you; but the charm would switch off if he didn't, or thought you might be hostile. There is too large a list of favourites who suddenly found that they were what he himself called 'corpses'. They were perhaps sacrifices to his career. But that was a dark side to his character.
There were a couple of years when Ben would not work with the London Symphony because one day a couple of double-basses laughed at a newspaper joke while they had nothing to play for a few seconds. He thought they were laughing at him.
His conducting was serious and penetrating; the heart and soul of the music was revealed.
It was curious about Peter's voice. With the consummation of their affair in the States, it changed, no longer that of a typical English choir tenor but, as some old friends pointed out, uncannily like the singing voice of Ben's mother. (Any comment, Dr. Freud?)
Perhaps Ben had one skin less than most of us. That might account for his sensitivity, his touchiness, maybe his genius.
Is the best of his music inspired by words? Not only are they impeccably set but they are set with an imagination that enhances and re-creates the original writer's spirit, style and imagery. He often chose words that you would think impossible to put to music or that would be destroyed in the setting. The only love duet, man and woman, occurs in The Prince of the Pagodas – wordless of course.
It was said that he turned down a knighthood but he was later awarded the Order of Merit and the first peerage ever awarded to a musician. He was happy to chum up with the Royals but that may have helped him to sleep nights in a country where, for most of his life, homosexuality was a criminal offence.
What a blessing it was to have lived at a time when it was possible to hear Britten play, conduct and produce a steady stream of wonderful new music!