In his Aspen Award acceptance speech Benjamin Britten explained that the magic of great music is only renewed when the listener is "in active sympathy" with the composer. That 'active sympathy' is a fragile and complex condition that Britten understood well when he created the Snape Maltings concert hall with its peerless acoustic and life-enhancing surroundings. So it is ironic that, for this writer, the very thing the Britten centenary celebrations are destroying is active sympathy. The latest contribution to the celebrations is Neil Powell's Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music. In his thoughtful review of the biography for Slate Seth Colter Walls draws attention to Neil Powell's unequivocal statement on the first page of the book that:
"[Britten's] fondness for adolescent boys and his devotion to his partner, Peter Pears, represent distinct and complementary aspects of his sexual nature; his conduct in both cases was exemplary and is therefore the occasion for neither prurience nor evasiveness"The italics in the quote are mine and I must emphasise that the purpose of this post is not to discuss, once again, Britten's private life. Quite frankly I would prefer to be writing about something else: but a new book has been published which describes Britten's sexual conduct as 'exemplary'. So I feel compelled to point out that it is on record that Britten not only shared a bed - yes, platonically we are told - with at least one adolescent boy, but also made what the other party described as "a sexual approach" to another adolescent in a bedroom (John Bridcut Britten's Children p52). In his review Seth Colter Walls quotes the observation I made in an earlier post that "there are many – including the parent who is writing this - who would categorize an adult male sharing a bed with an unrelated adolescent boy as most definitely ‘untoward’, if not downright predatory". Views will differ on this sensitive subject, but for some Britten admirers including me, well-meaning biographers and the avaricious anniversary industry they are part of are destroying that vital 'active sympathy' by their misuse of epithets such as 'exemplary' and 'role model'.
On An Overgrown Path is a personal website, and to illustrate how that 'active sympathy' is being destroyed I offer a personal anecdote. I live near Aldeburgh, have the highest regard for Britten's music, have attended many concerts in the Maltings and have written frequently about those experiences - my header photo of sculptures at Snape accompanied a 2008 post about the UK premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's string quartet Tree of Strings in the Maltings. But recently I have found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the tone of the official Britten centenary celebrations. Looking back, I find that this year I have attended just two concerts at Aldeburgh - both Jonathan Harvey tribute events - and have no plans to attend further Britten centenary events there.
I have not consciously stayed away from Aldeburgh, and, anyway, a boycott on my part would be both meaningless and arrogant. But, subconsciously, I have found myself out of active sympathy with the current Britten cult. Instead I find myself increasingly in sympathy with the composers who were cold-shouldered by Britten and the musical establishment during his lifetime, and find myself empathising with the many collaborators who helped Britten rise to prominence before they were left as 'corpses' out on the Suffolk marshes. I still hold Britten's music in the highest esteem and will be celebrating his centenary in November, but it will be away from the fawning junketing of the official celebrations. Thankfully, the notes that the genius Britten wrote on the manuscript can never be defaced. But, for this Britten admirer, composer anniversary junketing is defacing the music.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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).