Saturday, August 10, 2013

Composer anniversary junketing is defacing the music

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.

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Pliable said...

"Too much of the book seems a one-sided, flattened and defensive hagiography" -

.fseventsd said...

As far as the conduct of Britten the person is concerned, I am less concerned with his physical overtures to his boys and more concerned with the fact that he made them emotionally dependent on him, only to drop them unceremoniously once he no longer found them attractive—something that, if i recall correctly, was a cause of hurt and confusion to many of his former paramours. There is only one recorded instance of Britten having harmed a boy via (attempted) sexual abuse by contrast (although there were probably more that went unreported). But we should remember that physical abuse is not the only kind of abuse.

Of course, this is not primarily or even mostly what we should be talking about in relation to Britten (unless we are discussing Death in Venice or one or two other works); it is, for the most part, a tangent. I cannot say the prospect of an entire year of Britten's music filled me with glee, but there are several works of his i have admired, notably the three song cycles with strings, which i suppose i'll dig up and re-listen to come November. While trying not to think about adolescent boys, or who Britten supported or excluded at Aldeburgh :/

Rick Krueger said...

Thanks for this. I'm currently waiting for the Powell bio to arrive via Amazon. I've been surprised by how much press it's getting Stateside -- perhaps because the Kildea biography has only now become available here as an import.

I must admit that, as gossipy as it is, I still find the Carpenter bio to give the most vivid sense of Britten as a person. Kildea does well at showing him in the context of the musical culture (though from the same polemical viewpoint contra Elgar, RVW etc. that Britten took). I do understand the contentiousness nature of Kildea's remarks on Britten's health in his final years, and have taken them with what I hope are appropriate grains of salt.

After falling in love with the War Requiem in college, I went on a Britten binge in graduate school -- then went further back to RVW, Finzi, Rubbra and company. I've never quite understood why choosing between Britten or the pastoralists was a necessity. In that sense, Britten's admirers of the past and present have not necessarily served him or his listeners well.

While I hope to catch a Britten centennial concert when I visit the UK in November, I can certainly understand why the hagiography industry has soured you on them. I certainly appreciate this nuanced, fair post.