Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2005

Letters From a Life: Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten (Volume 3, 1946-51), edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke

reviewed by Mansel Stimpson

This invaluable volume appears fourteen years after the initial issue that gave us the first two. It is part of an ongoing project that will ultimately extend up to Britten’s death in 1976.

As before, the letters are very readable, but it is no less important that they are annotated so thoroughly that one can understand why Donald Mitchell in his introductory article refers to this as a substitute for the authorised biography he was invited to write. This is the more justified because Britten allowed his art – as a composer, pianist and conductor – to be at the forefront of his concerns, and the present format is particularly suited to recording the life of an artist.

Inevitably these letters are of specialised interest but, since Britten and his companion the tenor Peter Pears were a couple who together stood at the pinnacle of British artistic achievement in the twentieth century, this is a record of special significance for gay readers.

First of all I should provide clarification of what this book offers. The letters contained here mainly relate to the first six years of the postwar period and they reflect the era in such details as the several references to food parcels sent to Britten from America to relieve the effects of rationing. However, the first 26 letters are additions from the period between 1936 and 1945 made available since Volumes 1 and 2 appeared. The letters naturally refer to Britten’s compositions throughout and to the circumstances of their creation, while the annotations include surveys of the initial critical reception of the major works from this period. Those thus featured include The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, the Spring Symphony (“the inspiration for the symphony is England”, said the composer), the realisation of The Beggar’s Opera, The Little Sweep and Billy Budd.

When one reads the responses to the operas one ceases to be surprised that Britten was sceptical and uneasy about critics all his life, for they more often than not undervalued his work. What does emerge, however, is that Britten seems at this time to have been appreciated more in Holland and elsewhere in Europe than in this country.

For admirers of Britten’s music some of the most fascinating passages here concern projects considered but not followed up: an opera of Mansfield Park with Kathleen Ferrier in mind, The Tempest in a musical form that might have involved Sir John Gielgud, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod to provide a possible successor to The Little Sweep as a children’s opera and (most striking of all) the unfulfilled plans that would have given further expression to Britten’s humanitarian beliefs. These include an oratorio, Mea Culpa, as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima and a requiem for Gandhi, which might have combined English and Latin texts, just as the War Requiem was to do in the sixties. In contrast, there was even a prospect in 1947 of a C. B. Cochran show featuring contributions by Britten, Ronald Duncan (the librettist of Lucretia) and T. S. Eliot!

Since a number of Britten compositions set church texts (we even learn here of an almost unknown canticle, Venite exultemus Domino, composed in 1961), readers of this magazine may be interested in Britten’s response to the wartime tribunal for conscientious objectors. This is quoted in this volume’s introduction. It appears that his submission lacked any conventional comments on Christian doctrine and confirmed his disbelief in the divinity of Christ. Instead his central statement was this: “The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation ... and I cannot take part in acts of destruction.” Nevertheless, Britten did believe in an afterlife and in the existence of some spiritual being.

Donald Mitchell is on good form in the second of his two commentaries, an essay built around Britten’s friendly relationship with the gay writer and critic Edward Sackville-West. Indeed it’s here that we find a particularly memorable letter from Britten: his delicate, sensitive response to the older man’s outburst of his love, which the composer needed to reject without if possible hurting the other’s feelings. Mitchell is however rather more heavy-handed in his introduction, which is in part a reaction to the Britten biography by the late Humphrey Carpenter. That book put much emphasis on Britten’s sexual orientation and on his emotions regarding boys while yet acknowledging that Britten appeared to have resisted all physical expression of the paedophiliac side of his nature. The present volume taken as a whole further confirms the emotional as opposed to the lustful aspect of these feelings.

Consider this: in relation to housekeepers among others, it was remarked that with women Britten always looked for a surrogate mother and with adolescents it could well be a case of his seeking a surrogate son. On the birth of a child to the Harewoods, he wrote to Marion Harewood saying “I could write reams describing my feelings on realising that you two whom I admire and love so much have this continuation.” Elsewhere he comments on Constable paintings then both believed to be of the artist’s eldest son: “One can see from the tenderness and romance with which the paintings are done how much the father loved him.”

For Britten the greatest regret about being gay may well have been the fact that he could not father a child. His own creation was the Aldeburgh Festival (its founding recorded here) and, of course, his compositions. These works endure and will continue to do so, while these volumes of letters provide a valuable background to them.

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Created : Sunday, 2005-06-05 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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