That creative force which dances through all of life
Britten scholars accept John Bridcut's book Britten's Children as a reliable and authoritative source. Bridcut recounts how in 1937 Benjamin Britten, then 24, took Harry Morris, a chorister aged 13, on holiday to Crantock in Cornwall. The following extracts are taken from the book*:
...Harry Morris left Cornwall early... In later life he told his wife Beryl and their son Tim that 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.John Bridcut quite reasonably argues that:
Harry's account (as remembered by his widow and son) is not itself proof of anything untoward: indeed, the account is more about a sense of threat than about an actual incident. It is possble (though unlikely) that, even after two weeks at Crantock, the boy misread the situation.But surprisingly considering Britten's Children was published in 2006, Bridcut goes on to explain without irony that:
Beth Britten refers to this holiday in her book. She does not mention Harry by name, but, as an example of her brother's efforts to help children, says that they took a boy from the East End of London' with them to Cornwall. Ben was apparently horrified on the first night when the boy took the pyjamas he had supplied and put them on over his underclothes.Circumstantial the evidence of a threat, if not of actual abuse, may be. But it is given credence by the authoritative John Bridcut. So is the evidence for Britten's alleged misdemeanor any less reliable than that used to taint, and sometimes even destroy, the reputations of contemporary musician's? Let me state quite clearly that the purpose of this post is not to start a witch hunt that will smear the reputation of Benjamin Britten - heavens knows I have written in praise of him enough times here. Neither is my purpose to exhort the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival and other leading ensembles to drop Britten's compositions from their repertoire. The purpose of this post is to ask some important questions that are being overlooked in classical music's recurring abuse scandals.
If there had been a reason for Harry's alarm and lifelong distaste, it perhaps marked a unique moment in Britten's journey of self-discovery. The liberation he was experiencing in the wake of his parents' death, with the active encouragement of Isherwood and Auden, had given him both a knowledge of, and a taste for 'the wider world of man'.
Why is some circumstantial evidence deemed more reliable than other? Is the pursuit of living celebrities for alleged abuse really motivated by altruism? Or is it motivated because living celebrities are the best click bait? Are we saying that what was unacceptable in 1997 - Dutoit allegation - was acceptable in 1937? Is a convenient statute of limitations (time after which an offense cannot be prosecuted) being imposed on abuse allegations - Britten versus Levine? Are we forgetting that sexual mores were not only very different in 1937, but were also very different up to the turn of the century? If Placido Domingo, Daniel Gatti and Charles Dutoit can be branded as an alleged abuser, why not Benjamin Britten? (Before the social media rottweilers are unleashed, let me emphasise again that I am not advocating in any way the hounding of Britten.) Are we forgetting that, to quote Jack Kornfield: "The power of sexuality is enormous - it produces all of humanity; it is that creative force that dances through all of life"?
I am returning to this subject reluctantly. My view is that too much has already been written. However, most of that writing has been motivated by self-interested audience gain, not by a genuine desire to shed light rather than heat. There are still many unanswered questions about the scope of abuse within classical music. But asking the wrong questions will always throw up the wrong answers. It is my hope this post raises some meaningful questions. Let me leave you with more wisdom from the psychotherapist and teacher Jack Kornfield:
Years ago, as our Buddhist community was going through a painful period dealing with a teacher who had gotten sexually involved with a student during a celibate retreat, we had a series of confused and angry meetings. We were trying to understand how this had happened, and what we needed to do about it. But these important questions were often asked with a tone of outrage and indignation. Then in the middle of one of the most difficult community meetings, one man stood up and asked a question of the group in a tone of great kindness. "Who among us in this too," he asked, "has not made an idiot of himself or herself in relation to sexuality?" The room broke into smiles as everyone realized we were all in it together. It was at that point that we began to let go of some of the blame and look for a wise and compassionate response to everyone concerned in this painful circumstance.* Extracts taken from page 51 and following pages in my hardback first edition of Britten's Children. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).