Zeitgeist maestro

Selling Britten
March 21, 2003

In 1946, the year after the premiere of Peter Grimes made him a household name, Benjamin Britten bought a rather nice prewar Rolls-Royce. Although Paul Kildea's Selling Britten barely mentions the composer's personal finances, Britten's huge popularity from the end of the second world war onwards had obvious implications for his lifestyle. The frequency of the Aldeburgh-Framlingham hopper was no longer a source of concern. That Britten's salvation from the vagaries of omnibus travel should have come in the form of an elegant Roller is a reflection of his ability to take maximum advantage of what commercial opportunities presented themselves.

And there, in a nutshell, is Kildea's frequently fascinating book, or as the author puts it: "Britten was involved in these new market articulators (radio, film, recording and so on) from their beginnings - often influencing their shape and potency. Inevitably his own music was moulded in the process."

If this were a different sort of book, that ominous second sentence might herald a catalogue of compromises and artistic betrayals, but Kildea dishes little dirt beyond occasional arch references to Britten's fondness for the company of the young. Instead he proceeds lucidly to examine the spheres of Britten's compositional life, how he adapted to the new media shortly after they were invented (going against a Luddite tendency in British artistic circles), and attempted to supply his customers with the sort of thing they wanted. Had he been less successful, this might indeed have entailed selling his soul; but fortunately for Britten, after 1945 what they wanted was him.

Before that, though, there was a certain amount of composition by contingency. In the 1930s, a suggestion from Britten's publisher might result in a work. The process sometimes worked in an aversive rather than attractive way: Britten would avoid setting certain texts because they were in copyright and required exorbitant royalties to be paid.

When the BBC initiated broadcast music in the early 1920s, it was greeted by many as the trumpet of doom for live performance, but the BBC worked to the advantage of many composers, not least Britten. Publicity from a radio broadcast helped sell printed music (composer royalties) and also involved a payment to the Performing Right Society (more royalties). The BBC's substantial resources meant that a young composer such as Britten could write and hear performed works on a large scale that he would struggle to place elsewhere.

If the BBC wanted them, that is. But even before Grimes, Britten did pretty well out of the BBC - except for the years of exile in America at the beginning of the war, when a perception that he had deserted his country in its hour of need put a brake on his career. But afterwards all was again sweetness and light, and when Britten and Peter Pears set up the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, BBC money for broadcast rights was an important part of festival income. Radio also served a more general end in bringing about what Kildea calls "the democratisation of serious music", beaming great music into millions of homes, including that of the young Britten.

The invention of talkies may have been bad news for thousands of musicians who made their living in cinema orchestras, but for Britten it was another opportunity: he linked up with the GPO Film Unit in 1935 and wrote music for some 30 films. But his most celebrated work was in opera, and here Britten took advantage of the desire expressed by the Arts Council in 1945 for "opera in English". As there were few decent operas in English to perform, Britten wrote some. He set up the English Opera Group, a small outfit for which he wrote correspondingly small (chamber) operas. Kildea includes material relating to the finances of the EOG that not only sheds light on its own pitifully hand-to-mouth existence, but tells a story of constant flirtation with liquidation that still afflicts many arts organisations. His book gives a picture of arts funding in general rather than a narrow study of Britten, and provides timely reminders that, inter alia , Covent Garden has long been a black hole for cash, and the trip with the begging bowl to the Arts Council is as old as the Arts Council itself.

Britten was a big name in the EOG years, but still produced work insufficiently successful for the group's tiny margins. One such was The Beggar's Opera , one of many forays by Britten into the gentrification of folk art, and considered by many to be too highbrow. Britten responded with Let's Make an Opera , according to Kildea composed with EOG finances in mind: "With minor principals played by children at little or no cost, with an orchestra of seven and only one set, the hit was undoubtedly Britten's most cost-effective work for stage." And everyone loved it, even the critics.

Britten's judgement was not unerring, however. He urged that his opera Gloriana , written for the 1953 coronation, be premiered at Covent Garden on the night of a gala celebration, which was attended by "31 members of the royal family, 57 members of the royal household, 136 ambassadors and ministers, 99 Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet Ministers, 73 delegates from the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, 30 members of the Colonial Office" - and many more. The scarcely audible sound of so many delicate white-gloved hands clapping helped establish the notion that the opera was a flop.

But Britten was right enough of the time: Aldeburgh was vindicated in the end, and Britten made the most of stereo recording in the 1960s with definitive accounts of his own works. He could laugh all the way to the bank - and he didn't get there by bus.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer specialising in music.

Selling Britten: Music and the Market Place

Author - Paul Kildea
ISBN - 0 19 816715 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 252

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