Sunday, June 04, 2006

Benjamin Brittten's relationship with children


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.'

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.
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.

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

8 comments:

Henry Holland said...

It's always interesting to find out the "real" life of a favorite composer or performer, not the public image.

I initially listened to Britten's music (I knew most of his operas before I even listened to the non-operatic material) because he was always listed in the roll call of gay artists. It was pretty clear early on to me that he was, shall we say, fond of those that weren't of age yet. Uh oh! Benjie liked 'em young! Well, like Wagner and his vile anti-Semitism, it's a case of "I still love Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Nights Dream and especially Death in Venice despite the fact that Britten seems like a bit of a creep in his personal life".

I'm planning a trip to Europe next year and the new ENO Death in Venice with Ian Bostridge is on the itnerary. If I'm ambitious, Frankfurt is also doing a revival of their acclaimed production around the same time frame.

sfmike said...

Probably because of his own sexual abuse as a child/adolescent, Britten got stuck in time and place when it came to love, and it was all about being 10-13 years old. The British seem to specialize in this behavior as exhibited by another famous artist, Lewis Carroll, who fits into the same pedophile category.

Both artists, however, were completely transcendent. Neither was a real sexual predator. They both fell in love with a succession of brilliant child/adolescent alter egos.

Carroll left the "Alice in Wonderland" books to the ages. Britten left an incomparably more powerful legacy, which is the music he has written for children, from "Noye's Fludde" to the Fairies in "Midsummer Night's Dream," to the biggest child supernumerary part in opera after "Madama Butterfly" (think P.G.), to the children's choruses in "The War Requiem."

And let me say it right here on your very British blog site. Britten really was the reincarnation of Mozart in all kinds of ways, and it hasn't been quite acknowledged yet in the world, partly because of the pedophile queasiness (just like some people have queasiness over Mozart's scatalogical trashiness).

The biography I really want to read is about David Hemmings, the original Miles in "The Turn of the Screw," and later the star of "Blow Up." Britten had a real-life "Death in Venice" moment over young David during the premiere of "Screw," according to that stupid Humphrey Carpenter biography of Britten.

The same bad bio does have two great quotes from Hemmings:

"He was incredibly warm to me, yes. Was he infatuated with me? Yes, he was. He was a gentleman; there was no sort of overt sexuality about it whatsoever. It was a very kind and very loving and very gentle relationship. Did he kiss me? Yes, he did. But that was more my need as a young boy alone in his house than it was any threat. I slept in his bed, when I was frightened, and I still felt no sexual threat whatsoever. And I think it would have embarrassed him a damn sight more than it would have embarrassed me at the time.

And later Hemmings says:

"Was I aware of his homsexuality? Yes, I was. Was I aware that he had a proclivity for young boys? Yes. I was. Did I find that threatening? No, because I learnt an awful lot through it. Did I feel that he was desparately fond of me? I suppose I did, but I must say I thought far more in a sort of fatherly fashion; and I had a a very bad father-son relationship...There is no man in my entire life that has been more influential on my attitudes than Ben."

Pliable said...

Sfmike - follow this link to a very relevant article about David Hemmings and Britten in yesterday's Independent.

sfmike said...

Pliable - Thank you so much for that link. There was an interesting obituary when Hemmings died by Peter Bart, the editor of the American show business publication, "Variety," who had been a friend of his, lamenting Hemmings' inability to stick with any one thing over the course of his life, even though the man was indisputably brilliant.

After being a childhood opera star, and then a movie star, he ended up becoming a television director of hack shows like "Magnum P.I." before taking up movie acting roles again shortly before he died. What an interesting movie or long TV series that would be.

Thanks again.

Pliable said...

Sfmike, how's this for a real piece of trivia? David Hemmings actually went to the same school as me. It was Glyn County Grammar School, Epsom, Surrey. Many of his obituaries (including the Guardian) incorrectly called it Glyn College.

Follow this link for the school website - http://www.glyn.surrey.sch.uk/

Anonymous said...

Britten is indeed one of the great composers although given the infrequency of performances of some of his non operatic works..eg the Piano Concerto to choose one masterpiece at random, one wouldn't always think so.
However the great modern obsession with great artists' private lives doesn't seem to me to help very much in understanding their works.
Are we really any closer to understanding Graham Greene for example after having his life examined at quite excessive length in 3 volumes of biography?
Same with BB...does a book telling us about his interest in young males shed much light on his music...you could work out from the operas he wrote that he was a homosexual, why do we need a book telling us all about this, however well written and compasionate?
Personally I'd rather spend the money on going to a concert or buying a cd of BB's music.

Henry Holland said...

"I was Spanish-archered immediately [got the 'el bow']

Hahahaha. What a great expression.

I saw Blow-Up for the first time in 20 years recently and was amazed at a) what a great movie it was and b) how gorgeous David Hemmings was.

I wonder what Britten was thinking as he wrote the recititative at the beginning of the second act of Death in Venice, the one that starts "So it has come to this.."

Pliable said...

I have quite some sympathy with Anonymous' comment 'why do we need a book telling us all about this, however well written and compasionate?

Before publishing this piece I was concerned that it may be seen as 'tabloid journalism'. But two factors influenced my decision to go ahead. First the book Britten's Children is published by Faber who have close connections to the Britten Estate. Secondly both the book and the TV programme on which it is based are featured on the Britten-Pears Foundation website.

An award citation for the TV documentary Britten's Children hailed "this serious and beautiful film" for "avoiding the temptation of sensationalism", and for being "imaginatively researched and both touching and revelatory".