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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