Spare us the "Happy birthday Benjamin Britten" tweets

Benjamin Britten was a pupil at Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk from 1928 to 1930, and the photo above shows the "drama-documentary" Peace and Conflict being filmed there recently. The movie, which will be released as part of the 2013 Britten centenary, explores the development of the composer's pacifism during his time at Gresham's, and the producers say it uses new research and recently discovered archive material. The photo comes via an Eastern Daily Press story and there is more background on the film website.

Although not mentioned in the film's promotional material it is worth noting that when asked "What would you do if Britain were invaded?" by a a tribunal for the registration of conscientous objectors in 1942, Britten replied "I believe in letting an invader in and then setting a good example" - an example which if followed by others in the event of a Nazi invasion would have meant the absence of Mendelssohn and a number of other composers from Aldeburgh Festivals. I have no other information about Peace and Conflict and this post is being written in western France, some 500 miles from my home in Norfolk. But based on available information the film does promise to add some much-needed value to what may otherwise be just another composer anniversary.

Thanks to Mahler, Cage and others, classical music is suffering once again from anniversary overload, and that is before we reach 2013, when Wagner and Verdi join Britten in centennial celebrations. Each succesive anniversary brings even more inane and valueless "Happy birthday Gustav Mahler" type tweets, even more puff pieces from social media apeing journalists, and even more unimaginative and unremitting cycles of the birthday boy's work (birthday girls rarely get the anniversary treatment) from orchestras and radio stations. I hope I do not need to restate my passion for Britten's music; but how many cycles of his String Quartets and performances of Peter Grimes will 2013 stand? And do we really need a BBC Radio 3 Britten Experience?

Composer anniversaries should be an opportunity for new exploration and critical reassesment, but instead they have become rolling hagiographies created to sell CDs and concert tickets, and grab audience ratings. I might not be in total agreement with the sentiment, but I would happily trade several of the current Cage anniversary bashes for one intelligently argued thesis that his widespread appeal has something to do with the emperor and his new clothes. Similarly I would trade any one of the ubiquitous Mahler cycles for a thesis that his symphonies are no more than third pressing Wagner. Surely reasoned dissent is as valuable as unreasoned praise?

Britten's genius, like Cage's, is, of course, beyond question. But let us remember these words from symphonist and pianist Ruth Gipps:

I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy (all of course normal married men) included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but avant-garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances.
If recent anniversaries are anything to go by, the Britten celebrations will see too many concerts in which his music is framed by those that influenced him, and the many that he influenced. Which is very sad: the fact that Britten was right does not make those that Ruth Gipps termed his rivals wrong. Would 2013 be any less of a celebration if there was a little less Britten and a little more Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and even Gipps?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photo is via EDPnews 24, Ruth Gipp quote via The Innumerable Dance, the Life and Work of William Alwyn by Adrian Wright (ISBN 978184383412). 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Gavin Plumley said…
What can Ruth Gipp mean when using the word 'normal' in her citing of those four 'married men'? Such a worryingly ambiguous word undoes her argument in my view.
Halldor said…
Well put - but surely "Gipps"? And yes, fine musician and fascinating person though she was, there's a troubling undertone to that "normal".
Pliable said…
Fair point Gavin. But I think we have to accept that Ruth Gipp's comment was made in a time when attitudes were considerably less enlightened than they are now. But if we ignore her offensive phraseology there does seem to be some truth that a number of very talented composers were unfairly eclipsed by Britten and his circle.
Mack said…
"I have been told", says Ruth Gipp, about others' musical careers that Britten ruined. It's an interesting and important claim so I naturally wonder what references there might be to support it. Do you know if her claims have been more fully documented somewhere?
Pliable said…
Halldor, yes, my error. Of course it should be Gipps - that is the danger of writing posts beside a swimming pool after a very good lunch!

Mark, can I pend that question for a while? I am also 500 miles from any reference material other than a rather flaky internet connection. Interestingly Googling "Ruth Gipps" returns my 2011 post as the second result. In the meantime Adrian Wright's Alwyn biography is well worth seeking out.

I also should have added that for arcane technical reasons this post hasn't been uploaded to Facebook. If anyone thinks it is worth sharing there please feel free to flag it up.
Mike said…
The combination of "I have been told" and "all of course normal married men" strongly smacks of some combination of professional jealousy and homophobia.
Frank Little said…
Any falling out after the formerly gay Lennox Berkeley had married must have been mended:
Pliable said…
I expected a comment about Lennox Berkeley to come up - the same point was made by a another reader in a comment on my 2011 post on this subject.

Frank is quite right about Berkeley having a youthful homosexual affair. But "formerly gay" is, for me, a dangerously dualistic concept which assumes quite wrongly that all men are either gay or heterosexual, and that no shades of grey exist in between.

Some very interesting points have come up in this debate, but I do find it rather unfortunate that some other interesting points have been swamped by discussion of the semantics of sexual orientation.

I wonder what direction this path would have taken if I had framed the quote as follows:

"I have been told that Britten was personally responsible for having the careers of possible rivals ruined if he could; those who suffered from his jealousy... included Walton, Finzi, Howells, Berkeley and a number of other genuine composers. With his works framed in nothing but avant-garde Britten was able to shine - and went to his death a millionaire, complaining that he didn't get enough performances."
Pliable said…
Daniel Wolf comments via Facebook and finally someone sees the wood for the trees -

"A very good post, Bob. Britten's pacifism without a component of non-violent resistance when required would lead, ultimately, to acquiescence in the face of violence, a deep contradiction ultimately reinforcing the power of violence rather than denying it. One cannot help but think that this connects to Britten's anti-establishment posture which so rapidly evaporated when he himself became the establishment."

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