From early in life, Britten had close relationships with handsome teenagers. On his side, there was often a sexual attraction. The boys themselves were sometimes unaware, sometimes complicit. Ronan Magill, the last such figure in Britten's life, wasn't conscious of the charge in their relationship at the time, but says now: 'If he did [feel attraction], then I'm glad that he did - if I could make him think that way for even five seconds.'From today's Observer review by Adam Mars-Jones of John Bridcut's new book Britten's Children. A brave, and highly commendable, piece of publishing by Faber. It tells, for the first time, the full story of Britten’s love affair in the 1930s with the 18-year-old German Wulff Scherchen, son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen. As Paul Hoggart of The Times commented, ‘this type of love belonged to an emotional landscape that has vanished for ever, and we are the poorer for it’. Follow this link for Richard Morrison's perceptive Times article on the TV documentary from which John Bridcut's book is a spin-off.
When it comes to the question of how far attraction was physically expressed, Bridcut sometimes leans on the evidence. In 1936, Britten invited Harry Morris, 13, on a family holiday in Cornwall (Britten's brother and sister and their families were also present). According to Morris, Britten came into his room one night and made what he understood to be a sexual approach. The boy screamed and hit his host with a chair, attracting the attention of Britten's sister, Beth. Harry returned to London in the morning.
With Pears installed as a sort of combined spouse and chaperone, favourites were welcomed but limits were set. The chosen boys tended to be more or loss posh, and both sensitive and sporty. For Britten, the essence of boyish beauty was movement, which was why he made Tadzio in Death in Venice a dancing role. (See photo above). Parents were usually grateful rather than suspicious (Ronald Duncan willingly made over part of the parenting of his son, Roger, and forwarded his school report).
Innocence and sensuality seemed to co-exist in Britten, as they do in children, but an adult's innocence must always be held to account. He was lucky. There was gossip, but never quite scandal, though in himself, by virtue of being an artist with an obsessive outdoor streak, Britten combined the two arch stereotypes of the corrupting homosexual - the aesthete and the scoutmaster. Bridcut mentions a day of composition, rehearsals and performance into which he managed to cram four swims.
To describe an aspect of Britten's relationship with children, Bridcut uses the term 'paedocratic', not a word that will widely catch on, perhaps. Britten liked children to be in charge. The freer they were, the better he liked it. He never talked down to children and, in sports, never lost by choice.
Now playing - Britten's Holiday Diary and the music for one and two pianos. A wonderful anthology of Britten's piano music composed and revised between 1923 and 1969. Played by Stephen Hough and Ronan O'Hara on EMI Classics 567492. The cover painting is by the English artist Henry Scott Tuke who worked in Falmouth in Cornwall between 1885, his work in this style made him a pioneer of gay art.
* But storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh - an update on this post here.
Image credit - Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice, Opera Company of Philadelphia production from Stevenrickards.com, Britten from Britten-Pear Foundation Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk