Tuesday, May 28, 2013

2 New Britten Biographies

Both books are entitled: BENJAMIN BRITTEN. Paul Kildea's is sub-titled A Life in the Twentieth Century, published by Allen Lane, 666p, £30. Neil Powell's sub-title is A Life for Music, 512pp, £25, Hutchinson.

Melancholy was surely Britten's temperament, yet he composed some of this century's happiest music. I need only mention the finales of the Young Person's Guide to music and the Spring Symphony. He was blessed with triple gifts; a genius of a composer, as a pianist-partner supreme, and one of the best conductors of his time. No wonder that Michael Tippett thought him the most musical person he had ever encountered. Yet Ben needed to be reassured, as a nervous performer, always having recourse to strong drink before lifting his baton. There is a story of a friend finding him hopping about on a carpet in an Amsterdam hotel: if he could get to the door without treading on a line of the pattern it would prove that he was a good composer.

Yet making music must have given him pleasure. And he was a happy traveller; likewise he enjoyed his food (nursery fodder – weak tummy) and drink. He was a voracious and wide-ranging reader, poetry and prose, and he must have taken pride in his expert settings of various languages besides English. In his setting of our native tongue he showed himself a master, a worthy follower of Dowland and Purcell. He could open the ears of his listeners to fresh thoughts about words that he made always audible and that he positively illuminated. Sometimes he botched spellings but he wrote thousands of fine letters (now duly published). How did he find time to accomplish what he did? His powers of concentration must have been almost superhuman, likewise his ability to work long hours. His various devoted helpers sometimes could not keep up to his pace – sometimes twenty pages of full score a day. When did he get time to think and dream?

He was always happy to be with children (even little girls sometimes!) He frequently fell in love with boys but, as two of them testified, David Hemmings and David Spenser, there was never any 'hanky-panky' (they both used that expression) even though they sometimes spent time in his bed. Happiness there was but also a certain melancholy that Leonard Bernstein described as emotions not quite meshing. His childhood days seem to have been his happiest and I think he always regretted their passing. Nevertheless composing was his keenest joy, a joy reflected in the subtle charm that delights us, a charm that never cloys. With time there was less of that charm – the experience of visiting Belsen left its mark.

Britten was a genius. He was modest… up to a point. He sacrificed his life to this art, his health too. Maybe that was why he also sacrificed many of his friends and colleagues when they transgressed – or he thought they did. The list of his 'corpses' is long and distressing. He could be cruel as well as wonderfully kind.

Both of these biographies deal fully and fairly with the life and works of Britten. There are no conspicuous gaps. Powell veers towards the literary angle which is understandable because he is also a poet. There are a few opinions one could argue about in both books but nothing serious. Kildea thinks more highly of Owen Wingrave than most of us who find it curate's-eggish, that the plot inspired neither BB nor us (Walton called it Owen Windbag), likewise Powell favours the cantatas, academic or pitying more than most of us and he is 'down' not on Jemmy Legs but the novice-flogging scene in Billy Budd. But these are tiny pimples on the flesh of two fine bodies of work, well produced, difficult to choose between them. If you are in funds, splash out on both. Here follow a few notes which I add from my long knowledge of Ben and Peter:
There's no need for Pears
To give himself airs;
He has them written
By Benjamin Britten.

Punch spoke the truth. There is no performer in musical history who had so much music, most of it can be called great music, written for him as Peter Pears. From Grimes through to Death in Venice via song-cycles, folk-song arrangements, cantatas, canticles; the tally is unique. And Pears repaid the gifts with his gifts. Britten thought that nobody was a better artist than his life companion.

Peter doesn't come unscathed in these biogs. He had many peccadillos. He was also often impatient with Ben being ill so often. He was also not interested in Ben's works written for others to perform. And he could be wildly jealous when Ben fell in love: Arda Mandikian told me that during the production of Turn of the Screw in Venice she got little sleep in her hotel bedroom next to Peter and Ben, because they screamed at each other all night because Ben was so blatantly besotted with Miles-David Hemmings. It was a sexless affair that ended abruptly on the day that Hemming's voice broke; apparently Ben had no further contact with the boy from that moment on.

Ben and Peter were better at engaging than dismissing. My wife was a victim. Olive Zorian had been leader of the English Opera Group Orchestra for some years when she heard that she had been given the chop. Every member of the orchestra knew that she was to be replaced but nobody had told her.

Ben loved games. Cricket when he was very young, later tennis and croquet. His swerving serve could only be returned if his opponent stood practically in the netting (as I found myself). One day he was playing croquet at the Red House with frequent Aldeburgh Festival performer and first Miss Jessel in Turn of the Screw, soprano, Ben managed to manoeuvre his ball from just behind the line with a croquet that got him actually through the hoop. Incredulous, Arda exclaimed: "Oh Ben, how do you get your balls in round the back." He replied "Well, I've had a good deal of experience." (Game, set and match)

He was determined to win and could get shirty if he didn't. He placed a ball as skilfully as he set down a note, always knew how a note could be sung, bowed, blowed or hit, how the singer(s) could find the note.

When he wrote the Nocturnal for the guitarist Julian Bream Ben swotted up by getting hold of a technical manual so that when Julian pointed out that one or two passages were not possible Britten apologised but asked Bream if he'd thought of using this fingering or that position. Julian goes away, follows Ben's suggestions and finds that they work. The harpist Osian Ellis had a similar experience; he changed an octave passage for the sake of convenience. Sometime later when rehearsing for a repeat performance of the new piece (Suite for harp) Britten asked him if he would try out his original disposition of the hands as written); Osian tried it and found that, of course, the composer was right.

One day after lunch with Erwin Stein and his family in St. John's Wood, Ben sat apart at a table writing dots in a manuscript. After some minutes he joined us for coffee, saying that he had just written the final notes of the full score of Peter Grimes. Historical moment.

Later I sat with Erwin in the Stalls of Sadler Wells A1 and 2 for the première of Peter Grimes – June 7, 1945, another historical moment, this time for Britten and opera in Britain. After the performance I supped with Michael Tippett and his poet friend, Brean Douglas Newton.

The choice of the opera to re-open the house after the war had been the subject of much contention; older members of the company (Edith Coates, for example, who played Auntie in the opera) had wanted to kick off with Aida or even Merrie England but the new work proved to be an inspired choice, the finest full length opera an English composer had ever composed and brought to performance literally epoch-making as well as making the name of Benjamin Britten famous throughout the world (and another biff in the eye for those who still thought of the UK as Das Land ohne Musik).

Kildea does Britten one disservice by stating that the composer was suffering from syphilis. Britten's own doctor says this is not true and that Kildea has not properly checked all the medical reports. Whatever is the truth of the matter the damage is done and somehow Britten's reputation will suffer.

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