Among the many facets of Benjamin Britten's character we have gleaned during the 100 years since his birth are his anti-war sentiments, most powerfully expressed in his War Requiem, premiered at the consecration of Sir Basil Spence's new Coventry Cathedral on May 30, 1962.
And a long section of Tony Palmer’s Nocturne, his latest documentary film about the composer, does that occasion full justice, including interviews with the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, whom the Soviet authorities forbade to participate, the lovely, modest Heather Harper, who stepped into her shoes at the eleventh hour, and Michael Foster (author of The Idea was Good, chronicling all the circumstances in assiduous detail), who explained how Britten had been gestating a War Requiem since 1946.
But Palmer goes over the top (pardon the wartime expression) in his illustration of Britten’s pacifism, arousing the suspicion that he is using the topic as a vehicle for his own personal agenda.
Do we really need to see repeated footage of emaciated corpses being dragged from Nazi death-camps and flung into quarried-out graves?
Do we really need to spend a long 10 minutes with the dear old veteran who collects and preserves all the farewell messages to dead young military personnel passing in coffins through Royal Wootton Bassett?
And do we really need to be reminded of the unctuous Tony Blair delivering to the House of Commons (how uncomfortable the cabinet colleagues flanking him looked) his perfidious speech about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction?
All this impedimenta detracted from the otherwise genuine merits of this film, with contributions from so many people, ranging from international superstars to those who looked after Britten back home in Aldeburgh.
The account of his gradual decline into death, from those who were there, from Peter Pears to his devoted nurse Rita Thomson, was especially moving ( though the opera Death in Venice was lingered on rather too lovingly).
And there were some wonderful musical insights, too, though inserted performances did not always come up to public-display standard.
Palmer rightly drew attention to Britten’s use of the timpani in significant works, not least in the wonderful Nocturne, a work which ran as a thread throughout these entire two hours, and which Palmer described as the composer’s finest song-cycle.
And on that, at least, he and I agree.