A controversial book about the death of Benjamin Britten is among the tomes released to mark the composer's centenary. Christopher Morley reports.
Someone risks pooping 2013’s celebrations of the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth.
Recently published as the first major biography of the composer in 20 years, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century is a handsomely-produced volume of nearly 700 pages, published by Allen Lane at £30. Paul Kildea, its author, is a writer and conductor who has performed many of the works he writes about here in concert-halls and opera-houses from Sydney to Hamburg.
Between 1999 and 2002 he was Head of Music at the Aldeburgh Festival, so he can be expected to write with impeccable authority. As such he deals comprehensively with the well-worn topics surrounding Britten: his pacifism, his homosexuality (always monogamous, his final partnership lasted nearly 40 years; this was with the tenor Peter Pears, in whose arms he died in 1976), his fondness for the company of boys and young men.
This particular characteristic is vividly illustrated in an account of a trip Britten made with Pears to the Indonesian island of Bali in the mid 1950s. They were charmed by the sarong-clad, colourfully-bedecked youths who entertained them, and the result was the impetus to complete Britten’s three-act ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (Birmingham Royal Ballet will present the UK premiere of David Bintley’s new production at Birmingham Hippodrome next February).
Kildea gives lively accounts of the world Britten created around himself at his Aldeburgh Festival, and there are plenty of photographs of top-of-the-tree stars such as the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya, German Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and many others.
Nothing controversial at all thus far, But Kildea drops a bombshell when he divulges the information that Britten’s fatal heart condition was exacerbated by the fact that the tissues of his distended aorta were found on the operating-table to be riddled with tertiary syphilis. This made the operation so much longer and difficult, resulting in the complications which saw Britten to his grave.
There is no official medical evidence for this assertion, and Kildea conjectures that a mysterious period of fever which Britten suffered in the early 1940s was in fact the first manifestation of a syphilis Britten had contracted from Pears early in their relationship. He suggests that Pears had been a frequenter of gay bars during the 1930s, and continued promiscuous activity as a means of whiling away Sunday afternoons in hotel bedrooms while on performing tours.
The only factual point Kildea makes here is that syphilis has the ability to imitate symptoms of other diseases, and therefore could possibly have progressed unchecked in Britten’s body. For the rest, are we really supposed to take seriously kite-flying based on “probablys”?
Other recent books released to mark this Britten 100 festival under the banner of the Britten-Pears Foundation, all published by Boydell, are much happier releases.
The monumental sequence of tomes bringing us Letters from a Life has now reached its completion with Volume 6 1966-76; it is jaw-dropping to realise that the hundreds of letters in this series are merely selections from a prodigious output. There’s plenty of the usual waspish, gossipy, fawning stuff we have come to expect, but also some unexpected material, such as a reproduction of Britten’s financial accounts with Peter Pears over one year, a reproduction of the last music the composer ever penned, and a poignant account of his last days.
Claire Seymour’s The Operas of Benjamin Britten – Expression and Evasion is a wonderful exploration, with close musical analysis and a wealth of contextual detail.
Her thesis is that in his operas, Britten was allowed to explore, express and simultaneously repress his private concerns. And of course she is right: boys and beautiful young men are focal characters in so many of these works: Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, Midsummer Night’s Dream (the changeling which is the bone of contention between Oberon and Tytania, and, above all, Death in Venice, with which Britten virtually signalled the closing of his life.
And her book brings a huge surprise to me – that Britten wrote to Ronald Duncan, his librettist for The Rape of Lucretia, asking if he would mind if he adopted his son, Roger. Duncan agreed, and for 10 years Britten was virtually a second father to the lad.
All these characters, and so many more, feature in the wonderfully exhilarating Britten in Pictures, edited for the Britten-Pears Foundation by Lucy Walker (£19.99).
After an illuminating introductory text, we tumble into a cascade of photographs tracking us through Britten’s early life, from precocious middle-class childhood through to the edgy latter years and eventual early death.
One wonderful reproduction is of the eight-year-old Britten’s Three songs of other country’s for piano with cornet and banjo, meticulously detailed in its dynamic and articulative directions. And the key is the ridiculously pretentious one of C-flat major.
But another one, even more poignant, is a letter he wrote home from his preparatory school, postmarked June 18, 1923:
“My darling Mums and Dad
I am just composing another peace of mine. It is not very nice but is good ‘nough to put down... Love me – please Love me... Love me _ BENNY!”