Storm clouds gather over Aldeburgh
On An Overgrown Path’s traffic logs show that the UK and international media are actively researching the private life of Benjamin Britten. One of the many failings of the BBC in the Jimmy Savile scandal was to assume that a potentially damaging story would simply go away. So, although I would much prefer to be writing about other things, I am reluctantly returning to the subject of Britten.
I am a huge admirer of Britten’s music, I have written in praise of Aldeburgh, and Snape is my local concert hall. But for some time I have had a growing discomfort about certain aspects of the composer's private life, and this means I do not share the dismissive attitude that prevails elsewhere in classical music towards its continued scrutiny. And it also means I object to being labelled as a “smut-stirrer” for believing the subject should not be off-limits .
The aspects of Britten’s personal life under scrutiny are public knowledge. In his eloquent appreciation of Britten in The Rest is Noise Alex Ross candidly describes the composer’s “longing for the company of underage males". While in John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children Charles Mackerras is quoted as saying “Ben’s behaviour was so much that of the besotted lover that one thought that maybe he might have behaved improperly with [David Hemmings] eventually. But if we can believe David Hemmings (and I do), there was no “hanky-panky” at all. Obviously it was a sexual attraction but I’m sure it was never actually fulfilled”. Later in Britten’s Children Hemmings says “I have slept in his bed, yes, only because I was scared at night”. While in the book’s penultimate chapter Bridcut tells how “Beyond the level of officialdom, the whisperings about Britten’s relationships with children continued unabated”. Elsewhere in Humphrey Carpenter's Benjamin Britten - A Biography Roger Duncan - one of the boys that Britten was attracted to - is quoted as saying "So you know, he used to kiss me, and that's about it".
Classical music must face up to the fact that in today's prevailing moral climate reports of “underage males”, “the besotted lover”, “I slept in his bed”, “whisperings about… relationships with children” and "he used to kiss me" are going to attract the mass media in the way that wasps are attracted to a honey pot. And also let's not forget classical music is currently making big effort to attract the mass media to Britten. The risk is that if blinkered attitudes continue, classical music, like the BBC in the Savile scandal, will be wrong-footed if the Britten storm breaks - although I fear that in view of unsubstantiated allegations elsewhere on the internet that should read when the storm breaks.
The view that further investigation of Britten’s private life is inappropriate is based on five defences, and these deserve close scrutiny. The first defence is that Humphrey Carpenter’s biography has already covered the ground. Which is quite correct - but how objectively? Carpenter’s biography was commissioned by Faber & Faber which has close links to Britten, both through their book division and through Faber Music - the latter company was founded in 1965 by Britten himself and Donald Mitchell to publish the composer's music. The second defence is that everything is documented in Britten’s Children. That may, or may not be the case. But even if it is, again how objective is the coverage? Britten’s Children was published by Faber, and its author acknowledges its debt to Carpenter’s biography from the same stable. The dust cover biography of John Bridcut says that “he has had a lifelong enthusiasm for the music of Benjamin Britten", and Bridcut is an establishment figure whose collaborations include a recent documentary about Hubert Parry made with Prince Charles. So it is not unreasonable to question his credentials as an investigative journalist. And we should remember that in the composer's lifetime Charles Mackerras and others paid the price of challenging the Britten legend, and the all-powerful music establishment - of which Aldeburgh is still very much a part - remains as unforgiving today.
The third defence of Britten’s private life is that nothing untoward ever came to pass. There are many – including the parent who is writing this - who would categorise an adult male sharing a bed with an unrelated adolescent boy as most definitely “untoward”, if not downright predatory. But if we take “untoward” as specifically meaning sexual activity, indeed there is no evidence that this happened. But does that mean it did not happen? Which brings me to the fourth defence, namely that there have been no complaints to date - an argument that the Savile case shows to be very dangerous.
The final defence is that Britten’s personal life has nothing to do with his music. This is refuted by Britten himself in his Aspen Award speech, where he set out “the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings”. Britten’s masterpieces such as the War Requiem are personal statements and the man cannot be separated from his music. When a composer is famous enough to be portrayed on coins of the realm and iPhone covers he must be able to withstand scrutiny both as a musician and a man.
Britten's musical genius is beyond question. But questionning the impartiality of his biographers is both reasonable and necessary. So, although I am not a fan of its style of journalism, I am not going to attack the Daily Mail for raising questions about Britten's private life. In fact quite the opposite, because I now feel uneasy that I - together with many others - have also been been less than impartial. The Jimmy Saville scandal has heightened my concerns, but my reservations predate the recent revelations. Writing about the Britten centenary back in September I said “Composer anniversaries should be an opportunity for new exploration and critical reassessment, but instead they have become rolling hagiographies created to sell CDs and concert tickets, and grab audience ratings”. Perhaps the ripples of the Savile scandal are a painful but necessary part of the process of new exploration and critical reassessment.
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I rather suspect that Great Britain's libel laws are one reason people are very careful in discussing this issue. Britten has been dead nearly 40 years; his estate is highly protective; where is the evidence, and who might have the courage to come forward or speak out?
That as may be, but just because a composer can make a personal statement in his work (Stravinsky would argue otherwise, mind you), does not mean that every work the composer writes has every aspect of the composer embedded within it.
A creator has a personal statement to say in the work and so the work contains THAT STATEMENT. It does not have to carry anything else.
That some aestheticians might argue that composers slip in more of what was going on around them than what the composer's own writings suggest is their own view as well - "the reviewer reviews himself" -- Robert Fripp.
So I'm not arguing that his personal life and/or attractions (whether he was able to control them and not act on them, as he said, or if he was not, for which there currently is no evidence) are not relevant to the man, but not every composition the man wrote contains every aspect of the man within it.
As far as Britten's legacy, he strikes me as being closer to Lewis Carroll, who was also a child-lover who probably never acted on it further than his little girl nudie photos, rather than a priest/scoutmaster/relative/etcetera who uses their position to sexually exploit children.
Should we ban "Alice in Wonderland" or "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"? Or for that matter, ban Wagner's music on account of all his nasty written commentary on "the Jewish question"?
Because of the current mass media interest there is a real risk Britten may join Savile on the hero to zero journey. That is an alarming prospect, and it is why I wrote the post.
You are right to say that the "pendulum has swung to outright hysteria". But the recent Lebrecht blog post - which is typical of attitudes within classical music - also exhibits hysteria, but of a different kind. As does talk of banning A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
You are also quite correct in your view that society at large needs to accept that great creative artists sometimes indulge in distinctly anti-social behaviour. But those within classical music also need to accept the same thing.
What are we trying to stir up?
Please re-read the post. It was carefully constructed to avoid any sensationalism or “stirring up”. Just some examples: the headline does not mention Britten or Saville, two other key words that are both emotive and attract low-level media via the search engines do not appear once in the text, and the header photo does not portray Britten. There is no talk of banning any of Britten’s works. And there are no allegations against Britten – in fact the words you use in your comment are far more emotive than those used in the post itself.
Now re-read Lebrecht’s post which I link to. Lebrecht is used by the BBC as a classical music talking-head, i.e. rightly or wrongly he speaks on behalf of classical music. And he uses these specific words in relation to Britten’s relationship with boys. “Nothing untoward happened”.
Now re-read my quotes from some of those boys; these quotes tell us that Britten shared his bed with them and kissed them. Now read the linked sources of those quotes: these tell us that Britten’s attraction to the boys was not reciprocated. There was no mutual attraction, which means Britten was using these boys to satisfy his own cravings. Central to my post is the argument that to say that “nothing untoward happened” between Britten and boys is at the best unhelpful, and at the worst dangerous.
It is easy to fall into the dualist trap, as I believe both you and Michael Strickland do, that – either Britten was a saint or he should have been jailed as Jerry Sandusky was. The received wisdom in classical music is that Britten was a saint, and dualism means anyone who suggests otherwise is “stirring things up”. The argument in my post is that he was not a saint. But that does not mean, based on available facts, that he should be branded as a criminal, and I do not suggest that. Like all of us he was somewhere between a saint and a criminal. But we need to take on board that his failing – using his position of authority to have intimate relations with adolescent boys – is one that many, and the mass media in particular, are likely to view unfavourably.
My post simply makes two points in as sensitive manner as possible. One is that Britten’s intimacy – consummated or otherwise - with boys cannot be dismissed as “nothing untoward happened”. The second is that there is a strong possibility that the mass media will soon use very different words to make the same point, and classical music would be well advised to work out how it is going to handle that situation.
this was criminal and totally unacceptable.I know I am slightly off the subject,Bob, but I really don't think so. Artists are
given,no pun, license that does not extend to other sectors.Personally, as a music and art lover ,nothing,nothing is worth the crime of an abuse of a child.As a parent and a victim of this ,I don't care what the contributions are to society at large. Perhaps we might examine the leniency which we treat"artists" " oh they are artists they live differently". Different is not perverse.Abusing children is.
TWD you are not off message. You are right on it. And let's not hear the counter-argument that Britten did not "abuse" children. I am afraid that using his position of authority to share a bed with and kiss minors is a form of abuse, whether or not anything else happened.
Still, pederasty, whatever we think now, had an important, and honoured, place in many world cultures for centuries. No culture has ever given a place to relations with pre-pubescent children! What side of that divide were a) Savile, b) Britten on?
David, I am afraid I do not understand the point you make. As I said before, there are, for me, only two points. One is that Britten’s intimacy – consummated or otherwise - with boys cannot be dismissed as “nothing untoward happened”. The second is that there is a strong possibility that the mass media will soon use very different words to make the same point, and classical music would be well advised to work out how it is going to handle that situation.
Are you really saying that based on the accounts in the biographies nothing untoward happened between Britten and the boys? Because that is at the heart of this discussion, not what side of the divide Britten and Savile were on.
I wrote that, but I don't think any of it is relevant to Bob's current post. Lebrecht's post and comments thereon and some comments here are just obfuscating. If I am not myself guilty of misconstruction, I think the point made in this post is a simple and vital one: that those active in classical music should meet this issue and parallel cases head-on, discuss it and them openly, no matter how much the halo may be tarnished. Because if they and we do not seek the truth of the matter, it will once taken up by the gutter press be sensationalized and distorted, based on those 'sources' who know least, riddled with rumour indistinguishable from anything even remotely factual, lead to accusations of cover-up, and generally emerge as vastly worse, regardless of how bad it may actually be in the first place. In short, we'll have an analogue of the Savile business.
There is, by the by, a musical analogue of the Sandusky business at the Horace Mann School in New York. Paedophilia and hebephilia were covered up there for years, teachers who were nigh caught in the act allowed to resign and just move one, like catholic priests changing parishes. I noted that some of those commenting on Lebrecht's post were STILL being coy about the identity of the music teacher involved in this, in spite of widespread coverage in the respectable press and a website devoted to helping his victims. This was the late Johannes Somary, who died last year, and whose perverted activities, going back to at least the 1970s, were not restricted to the school. And yet in the Lebrecht comments, the cover-up continues. This is the very thing that can put the classical music world in bad odour. I never was an admirer of Somary's performances, to put it mildly, but even if they were the stuff of greatness, his musical accomplishments would have not jot nor tittle to do with his sexual activities and the enormous harm they evidently did to an untold number of boys.
Telegraph reivew paraphrase: “There is no doubt that there was often a sexual component to Britten’s attraction to children, but it was one kept rigorously in check, and the resulting tension fed into the work. Bridcut’s conclusion is that, in Britten’s dealings with children, he was the ideal friend and collaborator. Whatever shadows may have lurked in Britten’s mind, his effect on these boys was benign, wholesome, and inspiring. David Hemmings: 'He was not only a father to me, but a friend – and you couldn’t have had a better father, or a better friend.' And the others gave similar accounts."
Two other responses have been much clearer and to the point:
The Wound Dresser - "Different is not perverse. Abusing children is".
Philip Amos - "those active in classical music should meet this issue and parallel cases head-on, discuss it and them openly, no matter how much the halo may be tarnished".
This naive conclusion must be read in the light of the Harry Morris affair. In 1937 Britten, then 24, took Morris, a chorister aged 13, on holiday to Crantock in Cornwall with his family. Whilst there an incident occurred; Morris returned to London and a stand-up row took place between Britten and his elder brother; they were estranged for a time afterwards. Bridcut writes (p.52) that later in life Morris said he had been alarmed "by what he understood as a sexual approach from Britten in his bedroom. He said he screamed and hit Britten with a chair. This brought Beth (Britten's sister) rushing into the room, who, he said, shouted at her brother. She and Ben left, and Beth locked the door. Harry got dressed, packed his bags, and sat waiting for the morning. Without speaking, Beth took him to the station, and dispatched him to London. When he reached home, he told his mother what had happened, but she told him off and refused to believe his story. He never told his father."
Morris died in 2002. Bridcut notes (p.46) that "as an old man he had revisited Crantock, and the experience had made him feel ill". Then, astonishingly, Bridcut goes on, "Benjamin evidently delighted in laying on for Harry the same sort of treats as those he had given (another young protege), and in seeing his eyes light up with fresh experiences beyond his reach at home. This was what motivated him all his life in establishing friendships with boys".
I nearly fell off my chair when I read that last sentence.
With all the participants dead, it is impossible to be specific about what happened between Britten and Morris. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that this was an incident where Britten's interest in young (and therefore vulnerable) boys crossed the line. It may be the only time Britten did so; it may not be. In either event, Bridcut's general conclusion about Britten's conduct and proclivities is conclusively undermined.
There are further stupidities in Britten's Children, of which perhaps the most egregious are the many pages Bridcut devotes to Britten's relationship with Wulff Scherchen, a young German. It's true the pair met in the early 30s when Scherchen was 13 and Britten 20; but their relationship did not begin until 1938 when Scherchen was at Cambridge. The relationship was between two young men, and quite why Bridcut devotes fifty pages to it in a book called Britten's Children is a mystery.
Does it matter whether Britten if was a paedophile? Well evidently yes if anyone suffered from his attentions; but even if he was it wouldn't make him a bad composer. Wagner isn't a bad composer because he disliked Jews.
If John Bridcut's letter in this morning's Guardian is anything to go by, he is still at the whitewash. "There was no suggestion of impropriety", he writes.
Perhaps he should re-read his own book.
More on this at http://nicksimpsonmusic.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/re-reading-brittens-children.html