The other notes of Mrs B's boy

Letters From a Life

August 28, 1998

Tom Rosenthal reviews the letters of the greatest English composer since Purcell, Benjamin Britten.

We've just discovered the poetry of George Crabbe (all about Suffolk!) & are very excited - maybe an opera one day...!!" The quotation is from Benjamin Britten's letter to Elizabeth Mayer of July 29 1941 and is the first extant reference to Peter Grimes, following Britten's reading of E. M. Forster's article about Crabbe published in The Listener of May 29 in that same year. It is only one tiny treasure from this magnificent two-volume set, totalling more than 1,500 pages. The title is in no way a misrepresentation. There are indeed letters and diaries, but there is also an exemplary 60-page introduction by Donald Mitchell, a distinguished music publisher and the chairman of the Britten estate. This not only sets out the editorial ground rules but also indicates, with great tact, the input of both Britten and his life-long companion, lover and musical collaborator, Peter Pears. The book is thus an essential adjunct to Humphrey Carpenter's brisk and business-like biography of Britten, which appeared in 1992, the year after these letters were first published.

Britten is, surely, our greatest composer since Purcell. That was certainly always the hope and indeed the least ambition of Mrs Britten. While her husband laboured in his Lowestoft dental surgery, Britten's mother had no doubts at all that Benjamin was going to be the fourth B, the other three being Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. No one knows quite why the letter B is so significant in music but Mrs Britten had no doubts. Never mind Bruckner, Bruch, Bartok or even Ben's first significant teacher and mentor, Frank Bridge. Perhaps she maybe forgiven all those, but if there is a fourth B it has, of course, to be Berlioz.

Be that as it may, and given that all rankings of this kind are subjective anyway, Britten has earned his place in the pantheon of all great composers, let alone the multitudinous B's (how odd too that English opera composition in this century is also so full of B's. Apart from Britten we have Berkeleys - Lennox and Michael, both very close to Britten - and Birtwhistle). Certainly he is, after Janacek and Richard Strauss, the most important operatic composer of the 20th century and one whose principal operas - Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw - are now part of the international repertory. Even the once much-maligned Gloriana is now achieving the wide recognition it deserves and Death in Venice, The Rape of Lucretia and Owen Wingrave (so notably revived at Glyndebourne last year) will, I expect, soon join the others as standard international fare.

Because of the sheer industry of Mitchell and Reed the letters and diaries are not only annotated in a model of unobtrusive scholarship but they are also accompanied, whenever relevant, by additional documentation from interviews with and reminiscences of people who knew Britten well, such as Basil Reeve and the earl of Harewood. There are also appropriate extracts from some of Britten's occasional writings.

On page 918 there is a letter of May 12 1941, when Britten is in the midst of his controversial wartime stay in America - even-handedly treated by the editors - to his sister Beth. It runs for three pages and the notes run for six and a half pages and one would easily cope with more. Mitchell and Reed quote from an article Britten had written, "England and the folk-art problem" for Modern Music in the beginning of that year: "Elgar represents the professional point of view, which emphasises the importance of technical efficiency and welcomes any foreign influences that can be profitably assimilated. Parry and his followers, with the Royal College of Music at their centre, have stressed the amateur idea and they have encouraged folk-art, its collecting and teaching. They are inclined to suspect technical brilliance of being superficial and insincere. This difference may not be unconnected with the fact that Elgar was compelled to earn his living by music, whereas Parry was not. Parry's national ideal was, in fact, the English gentleman (who generally thinks it rather vulgar to take too much trouble). From Parry and his associates there arose a school of composers directly influenced by folksong, to which belonged virtually every composer known here until recently except, of course, Elgar and Frank Bridge."

What a devastating summing up of the English musical heritage and what a perceptive analysis by a man of .

The editors have, in my view wisely, retained Britten's eccentric grammar and spelling throughout. They enhance rather than hinder comprehension and, above all, understanding of Britten's endearing character which even Carpenter's frankness and the sometimes acerbic description of Britten, Pears and their Aldeburgh court by the tenor Robert Tear cannot seriously diminish. See the letter to Montagu Slater, librettist of Grimes, dated August 28 1945: "It looks at the moment as if the powers of Evil have won & that the recording of Grimes is off - at least temporally. Personally I haven't got time to intrigue to this degree - & after all there the piece is, & a matter of months doesn't really matter. But it's depressing."

Nor do they spare us what to a contemporary eye might appear to be a somewhat cloying relationship between Britten and his mother, where the schoolboy letters are sometimes a bit hard to take; an uneven mix of Molesworth and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Yet they do show a tremendous openness and enthusiasm as well as the desperate dependency of any child expelled from a loving home and transplanted into the alien horrors of a 1920s boarding preparatory school with a sadistic headmaster. Britten, however, clearly rose above it and, staying on until he was over 14, was the archetypal golden boy: head boy, captain of cricket and victor ludorum.

But, unlike others before him for whom prep-school glory is followed by downhill all the way, Britten went on to Gresham's for a mere two years before, aided by Frank Bridge's inspired teaching, he got a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, aged only 16.

Composition followed, studying under John Ireland, and then the first precocious performances of his early works. Not everyone at the RCM unreservedly admired him, despite his winning so many prizes there. Vaughan Williams was reported to have said after the 1931 award of the Farrar Composition Prize: "Very clever but beastly music." On the other hand the principal, Sir Hugh Allen, writing to Mrs Britten stated that: "I was delighted to hear from Vaughan Williams who examined at the end of the term for the Composition how highly he thought of your boy's work."

William Walton, on the other hand, was unequivocal in his enthusiasm, and moral support. He testified at Britten's conscientious objector's tribunal in 1942 and wrote to him in 1963: "The War Requiem is worth 100s of Lord Russells & Aldermaston marches & it will surely have the effect which you, possibly subconsciously, have striven for, for you have made articulate the wishes of numberless inarticulate masses." A fine tribute to Britten's burning pacifism which shines through so many of his letters and, of course, so much of his music; Owen Wingrave possibly even more than The War Requiem. Throughout the correspondence, once Britten becomes a fully fledged professional musician and composer, one sees what a well-rounded human being he is; how generous, how devoted to family and friends and yet simultaneously business-like and practical. The letters to his publisher, Ralph Hawkes of Boosey and Hawkes, are a model of how these things should be done. He wrote to Hawkes from Snape on December 19 1945:

"I haven't started the Rape of Lucretia yet, but Ronnie Duncan is half-way thro' the libretto which I think terrific ... Be patient, please, Ralph! I'll turn out some orchestral pieces before long for you - but don't be too depressed if things aren't too good about me in the U.S.A ... There's one small business matter which I ought to have discussed with you before you left, & which is a bit overdue now, & that is my new Contract with you. I wonder if you would mind if I went back to the original method of only receiving what I earn, & when I earn it. You see, Ralph, I am scared of receiving the large sum you mention (£600 per annum) & then (by evil chance) having to pay some back at the end of three years. If I needed a large sum now I should have to accept the advance method, but I don't & I'm old-fashioned enough not to feel easy about receiving more than I actually earn."

The book is not without humour. One can only commend the incidental descriptions of life at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights where, in a house owned by the writer George Davis (who later married Kurt Weill's widow Lotte Lenya), W. H. Auden held court, presided over the house and generally acted as landlord to a floating Bohemian population which included, apart from Britten and Pears, Paul Bowles and his wife Jane, Louis MacNeice, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee the stripper, Golo Mann (who was visited by his sister Erika whom Auden had briefly married to help get her out of Germany), Klaus Mann and many more. Auden took his landlording responsibilities quite seriously and on page 867 there is his hand-written bill to "Benjy and Peter" for a month's rent, "food for two weeks" etc, totalling $61.90 of which he scrupulously records that $19 has already been paid. Great men's laundry lists indeed.

Here is Britten describing life there to Antonio Brosa, the great violinist who had premiered his Violin Concerto: "We gave a housewarming party two or three weeks ago, at which Gypsie Rose Lee was a feature and we played murder all over the house and you could not imagine a better setting for it. The evening or rather morning ended with Peter and George Davis, owner of the house, doing a ballet to Petrushka, up the curtains and the hot water pipes - an impressive if destructive sight."

Sometimes the humour is unintentional, as in the total breakdown in communication when Britten accepted a commission from a Japanese prince organising musical tributes from around the world - this is before Pearl Harbor - to celebrate the imperial dynasty's 2,600th anniversary. The prince was seriously unhappy to receive the exquisite but wildly inappropriate Sinfonia da Requiem, a deeply moving work that Britten had written to commemorate his much-loved dead parents. The composer did not improve the situation by referring to the imperial prince as "Mr" in his letters.

Throughout there is a fine sense of detail, of what is right and much thoughtfulness for others. In one letter to his publisher he castigates the firm: "Another thing, I had a pathetic note from Sophie Wyss saying that L.B. (Leslie Boosey) had written asking for her MS copy of Les Illuminations & she wants to go on singing from it - sentiment... it was written for her... first performance... - as the firm has the MS of the score, I think she might be allowed to keep that copy, don't you?" And pervading everything is his quintessential Englishness, as when he writes to his brother-in-law from Amityville in New York State in April 1940, railing at the unspeakable political mess the rest of the world is in and how right-wing America is. His homesickness was overwhelming: "You see - I'm gradually realising that I'm English - & as a composer I suppose I feel I want more definite roots than other people."

This paperback edition is a corrected version of the original hardcover, first published in 1991. Apart from the rectification of literals and minor errors it has adopted the useful practice of repeating the index in both volumes and the index itself is a model of user friendliness, being divided into three sections - "Britten's works", "Other composer's works" and a "General index".

A third volume is in preparation and there will eventually be two more after that. When completed this remarkable piece of scholarship, beautifully illustrated with photographs, documents and musical examples, will surely rival even H. C. Robbins Landon's five volumes on Haydn as one of the most complete portraits ever of a great composer's life and work.

* Tom Rosenthal, chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, has written and broadcast on Britten's operas.

Letters From a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten. Volume one, 1923-39; Volume two, 1939-45

Author - Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed
Editor - Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed
ISBN - 0 571 19399 4 and 19400 1
Publisher - None
Price - £17.50 each
Pages - 720; 816

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