Composer with collaborators who feared joining the ranks of his 'corpses'

Letters from a Life
December 16, 2005

It has been 14 years since the publication of the first two volumes of Benjamin Britten's letters, tracing his life up to the triumphal year of Peter Grimes . Since this new volume covers just six more years, it is likely that the mammoth project has reached only its halfway stage.

There is no precedent for this attempt to narrate the life of one of the 20th century's great composers through his own words and the elaborate annotations woven around them. The letters themselves occupy less than a third of this large book; most of the rest is footnotes, though footnotes of a rather special kind. Just to give an idea of the amount of information contained here, the first mention of the artist John Piper, for instance, provokes a densely packed two-page biography; while references to the premieres of the three major operas composed during these six years - The Rape of Lucretia , Albert Herring and Billy Budd - and to the US productions of Peter Grimes , are enhanced by reprinting most of their press reviews and by printing letters to Britten from composers and other friends.

The originator of the project and its editor-in-chief, Donald Mitchell, has devoted much of his writing life to the art of annotation. In his introduction, Mitchell refers to a Proustian objective in his chosen method of biography through letters: the recovery of lost time. His methods might be considered Proustian, too, given that the final text of A la recherche du temps perdu was also the product of an immense scheme of gradual amplification. In Letters from a Life , as letter builds on letter and reference on reference, the mass of details begins to coalesce and we start to draw our own conclusions, in a way that, as Mitchell believes, the standard biography may preclude. The method employed here devolves more responsibility to the reader, in a way that can offer its own rewards.

An instance of an emerging sense of truth from the accumulation of details is the case of Eric Crozier and his falling out with Britten. This volume is dedicated to the memory of Crozier and his wife, the English Opera Group soprano Nancy Evans; as the librettist of Albert Herring and Let's Make an Opera , co-librettist with E. M. Forster of Billy Budd , and Britten's closest friend over this whole period, he dominates its pages. The end of their collaboration after the success of Billy Budd has always seemed mysterious, but is illuminated here by several key passages in Britten's and Crozier's letters. In a letter in May 1949 to his publisher Ralph Hawkes, Britten hints that Crozier, in requesting guarantees from Boosey and Hawkes against future royalties, was seeking an assurance that he would become Britten's permanent librettist, and this mention of commitment made Britten uneasy. During this period, Crozier had announced his resignation from the English Opera Group, and this too had profoundly upset Britten, to whom a sense of family loyalty was all important. Despite the success of Albert Herring , Britten brought in an eminent collaborator for the more demanding libretto of Billy Budd , and he began to find flaws in Let's Make an Opera , as a letter to Crozier in January 1950 criticising his revised text makes clear, and one to Erwin Stein a few days later even clearer.

There was in Crozier himself a kind of fatalistic, self-destructive side that led him almost deliberately to engineer his own downfall. "He [Britten] has sometimes told me, jokingly, that one day I would join the ranks of his 'corpses'I I have known since early this year that Ben was done with me, and that we could not work together again - for some years, anyway," he wrote to Evans in the summer of 1949, at a time when he was still hard at work on Billy Budd , and in other letters to Evans expressing his satisfaction with the opera's progress.

Crozier's replacement of Britten's previous librettist, Ronald Duncan, who had assumed that after Lucretia he would be collaborating on an opera based on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park , is not so clearly spelt out, though there are plenty of clues. The libretto of Lucretia is something of an embarrassment, as some friends were only too willing to tell Britten. Grace Williams, a composer friend from Royal College days, wrote: "Why in heaven's or the devil's name drag in Jesus Christ?" Britten was prepared to defend what had in fact been his own suggestion to add a moralising Christian element to the libretto, as a letter to Imogen Holst shows; but he did not use Duncan again except for small projects. The idea of a post-Hiroshima oratorio called Mea Culpa , however, persisted for years, and Duncan remained a friend. Britten, contrary to many accounts, was not prepared to reject members of what he regarded as his extended family.

The 1946 letters begin on January 24 with an announcement to Peter Pears: "I've taken the plunge and old Lucretia is now on the way." A few hurried letters later and Britten is on holiday in Switzerland, having finished the composition on May 3: an entire opera in three months. After an interlude when he involved himself in rehearsals for the premiere of Lucretia and wrote two shorter pieces and some incidental music for the theatre, he started on Albert Herring and finished it by April 1947. His productivity, the sheer expense of energy, is extraordinary. Although constantly apologising for lack of time, he continues to pour out missives to his partner, friends and associates. They are warm and vital letters carefully designed to suit their recipients, a pleasure to read and through them, much of the personality of a composer at the prime of his life is revealed.

David Matthews is a composer and writer, the author of a recent biography of Benjamin Britten. He is currently writing his sixth symphony.

Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume Three 1946-51

Editor - Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 758
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 571 22282 X

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