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The Minor Greatness of Benjamin Britten

How did England's best composer accomplish so much when he aimed for so little?

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Earlier this autumn, the Metropolitan 
Opera honored the centennial anniversary 
of Benjamin Britten’s birth on November 22 by re-staging its 1996 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Some 
particularly devoted fans of Britten, the composer who dominated four decades of British music before his death in 1976, consider A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only the best opera ever based on Shakespeare, but also the only one worthy of being considered truly Shakespearean. Never mind Otello and Falstaff, those late masterpieces by Verdi, or Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (in which Hamlet is crowned king in the end). It required an Englishman, they say, to enter into the true spirit of Shakespeare, and only a composer who had spent his career setting Donne, Hardy, and T. S. Eliot could properly find a musical syntax suitable to the iambs of the Bard.

A lot of piffle surrounds the cult of Britten, who was endlessly productive to a fault. A recently released box set of his Decca recordings runs to sixty-five CDs, plus supplemental material. After a 
musical drought that began with the death of Henry Purcell in 1695, Britten emerged during World War II as England’s best claim to a world-class musical genius, eclipsing distinguished predecessors such as Elgar and stolid recyclers of folk song and pastoral sentiment such as Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Frederick Delius. He was England’s great hope for serious modern music, and so he was very busy. There were coronations and royal birthdays to celebrate and churches to consecrate, and poor Britten never seemed able to say no. He wrote a lot of dull music.

But at his best, in his operas, canticles, church parables, some of his song cycles, and a handful of sui generis vocal works written in the early part of his career, Britten was very good. He was certainly never better than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Met’s production is as charming as the music, a colorful tapestry of quicksilver mood changes. The use of the orchestra is a marvel: slithering string glissandos create an otherworldly soundscape, and the various characters, rigidly pinned by Shakespeare into a linguistic and existential caste system, are sharply delineated by Britten’s endlessly inventive orchestration. A treble chorus plays fairies in the realm of Oberon, a role created at the premiere in 1960 by Alfred Deller, the pioneering countertenor. The fairies (in the Met’s production a mix of boys and girls) are defined by twinkling, plucking, and plangently hammered sounds: by celesta, harpsichord, and a percussion grouping that imitates the Balinese gamelan. Puck, a speaking role for acrobat, cavorts to trumpet and drum, and the rustics call forth all manner of distinctive instrumental grotesquerie. It is deeply moving music, the effect reassuring and restorative, and it leaves one more profoundly happy than most musical attempts to unsettle leave us 
sad or perturbed.

But the Met’s production, directed by Tim Albery and designed by Antony McDonald, is curiously framed. The enormous proscenium of the opera house has been cut down to a more manageable size with large, crudely limned border panels, and the action takes place inside what looks like a child’s rendering of a stage set. The opera relies heavily on children’s voices, and despite its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the work is intimately scaled. Downsizing the design to a stage within a stage is a sensible response to the work’s focused scenic and dramatic demands. But it is also 
precious, and it emphasizes the preciousness in Britten’s opera. And this reminds the audience how much of everything Britten wrote was precious: very pretty, appealing, and small, like a doll, or a carved cameo, or one of those little bronze figurines that Renaissance collectors stuffed into 
their curio cabinets.

Julian Callos

Unless you subscribe without 
reservation to the cult of Britten, you will experience much of what he wrote as a litany of longueurs punctuated by all too infrequent musical utterances that are so lovely you will whisper to yourself “lovely.” This is one aspect of what Neil Powell describes in his almost hagiographic new biography Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music as Britten’s principle of “delayed gratification.” Powell admires the strategy, and Britten’s devotees will declare the wait worth the reward. But many listeners who dig into the lesser song cycles, the weaker movements in the cello music that he wrote for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich,1 and the grimly dutiful but aesthetically inert music that pads out the darker operas (Rape of Lucretia, Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice) will find the delayed gratification comes with too much delay and too little gratification.

Britten himself seemed troubled by the question: can a great composer write reams of not-so-great music and still be considered great? Throughout his career, he was riven by self-doubt, deeply ambivalent about each new work, always wondering if his latest piece was his best or his worst. In his diaries and letters, he occasionally questioned whether he was writing too much music. In an interview with Donald Mitchell in 1969, the composer explained why he had never been an enthusiastic teacher of other composers: “Great composers can look after themselves.” On the other hand, he was keenly aware of the danger of trying to teach lesser composers: “It’s the minor composers, the people who can make our lives so much richer in small ways, that I want to preserve and to help.” That description—a composer who makes our lives richer in small ways—may well 
have been self-revelation.

The sense of smallness, the contraction of scale, is crucial to Britten. Powell’s biography stresses Britten’s deep love for the small town of Aldeburgh, where he made his home for most of his adult life, and for the remote reaches of Suffolk, where he was born to comfortable middle-class 
parents, and from which he took inspiration for several of his operas and many of his songs.2 As soon as he was able to support a career away from London, he abandoned his country’s cultural capital for the provinces, and despite maintaining a life-long ménage with his male partner, Peter Pears, he managed to insinuate himself comfortably into village life. Small-town life, Powell argues, is something that Britten chose, willingly and self-consciously, as a source of creative sustenance. But a deeper sense of smallness was everywhere present also in his musical choices: in his pursuit of chamber opera, his love of unorthodox ensembles of individual instruments, his preference for small voices, both the light, reedy tenor of Pears and the voices of children, especially boys, and in his lapidary attention to small musical details, which are the great pleasure of his work.

In musical terms, Britten forged a type of career that is relatively commonplace today, but was relatively new when he was making his way: a life fully engaged with world currents, but safely sheltered in a place apart. And this, some would argue, is the key to his music. He was happily provincial, yet had access to and was admired on the international stage. The BBC turned to him regularly and made him a household name early in his career. In 1937, the Decca Record Company made its first commercial recording of his music, and by the 1950s, Britten had found a permanent home at the label under the auspices of the legendary producer John Culshaw. His music circulated through Decca recordings to an extent (for a living composer) matched only, perhaps, by Stravinsky’s presence on Columbia Records. Though Britten claimed to dislike recorded music as a substitute for the real thing, he worked diligently and meticulously in the studio, and some of his recordings, especially the War Requiem, from 1963, in its somber black box, became obligatory staples of every literate and au courant music lover for decades.

Through his own music festival, first in Aldeburgh and later in the nearby town of Snape, Britten also cemented a lasting institutional legacy, and created an event that brought the world to his doorstep. When travel abroad was difficult or impossible for many Soviet artists, titans of the Russian musical scene—including Rostropovich, his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter—somehow managed to make it to Suffolk. So in professional terms, Britten had the best of all worlds: a life connected to his small-town origins, yet projected out through electronic and other means to the very ends of the earth. He could write a sweet little one-act opera, Noye’s Fludde, specifically for the amateur forces (hand bell choirs, children’s chorus, local buglers, and recorder players) ready to hand near the small Suffolk town of Orford, and that same work only a few years later would become one of the most beloved recordings of twentieth-century 
music ever made. 

But smallness is a hard virtue to square with the ordinary understanding of what great composers are about, especially in the last century, when musical ideology did not just aim at re-making harmonic and tonal language but had revolutionary designs on the social and political world as well. Early in his development as a composer, Britten adored the work of Berg and Schoenberg (an admiration reflected in several early compositions, including the Sinfonietta and the Violin Concerto), and he scorned the provincialism and the backwardness of the sedate English musical scene. The young Britten found Rachmaninoff “vulgar” and “old-fashioned,” and he excoriated sentiment and “slop.” By the end of his life he would be castigated in similar terms by a new generation of composers who found Lord Britten of Aldeburgh (he received his life peerage a few months before he died) an establishment figure, and too devoted to a conservative, tonal, and idiosyncratically melodic musical vocabulary.

So he was ferociously ambitious and competitive, but without any revolutionary agenda. Music, he stressed in occasional public pronouncements, was about service: composers were meant to be useful, and performance was an essentially social activity and properly rooted in communities. Had he lived to the age of Elliott Carter, a composer who was still elaborating and refining Schoenbergian ideas when he died last year at 103, Britten would likely have found his definition of musical purpose embraced by a new generation of musicians, who stress communitarian artistic values.

Listening to Britten requires a careful calibration of expectations, mainly to strip away lingering ideas and expectations of greatness and genius. It demands an understanding of beauty antipodal to the sublime. Britten does not shake the heavens. He does not create whole worlds articulated on the scale of Mahler’s symphonies. He is often sad but never despairing, cheerful but rarely ecstatic. The violation of innocence was a recurring theme, even an idée fixe, but while Britten composed music for creepy narrative situations—intimations of child molestation in The Turn of the Screw, emotional abuse in Owen Wingrave—he never descends to absolute degradation as Berg does in Lulu and Wozzeck. In a documentary about the composer in 1979 by the film-maker Tony Palmer, one of Britten’s sisters summed up her brother this way: until her Ben came along, “there’d never been a genius in the middle classes.” To get the best out of Britten, one must indeed listen with an ear sympathetic to middle-class values, and there is no shame in that. Indeed, it is strangely liberating to realize that you can enjoy those lovely tchotchkes without doing any permanent damage to your broader musical sophistication and progressive bona fides.

Britten was always happiest when working on the scale of the nuclear family, writing music about family relations and composing for ensembles that would fit neatly around a large dinner table. Individualism is prized as a subject, and individuality is enacted through vocal and instrumental lines that are allowed a great deal of florid freedom and contrapuntal independence. When he works on a larger scale, as in the magnificent Sinfonia da Requiem,3 from 1940, he may compensate with a generous brevity and concision. Throughout his musical language are telling echoes of the vestigial ambitions of the middle class, trumpets heard from afar suggesting a grander, more adventurous world beyond the horizons of an essentially settled existence. He loves poetry, chamber music, children, and nostalgia, and he would rather dither incoherently than say something untoward.

No matter what the young composer may have said about sentimental “slop,” Britten indulged it the way most people regulate their intake of fatty food and hard liquor. And he never seems quite as genial as on those rare occasions, as in Albert Herring, when he takes a second martini. He may have distanced himself from the taste for folk song, yet he was accomplished at writing off-kilter, slightly alienated folk-song pastiche, which is often the best thing to be found in his work. In the operas, the music that in film would be termed “diagetic”—the sailors’ cries of “O heave, o heave-away heave” in Billy Budd or the chorus of young men singing “Serenissima” in Death in Venice—are not only among the most memorable moments, but often some of the most musically generative material, recurring as thematic DNA far from 
their original context.

When he does rise to a different standard of greatness, when his music transcends its self-imposed smallness, it generally has something to do with a deep sense of unfairness. In his second Canticle, a re-telling of the story of Isaac and Abraham, Britten breaks free of his parlor manner and writes music—much of it in his inflected folk style—of uncommon power. The subject is the cruel and arbitrary unfairness of God, the conflict between duty and love distilled to an intolerable degree. Last October, at New York’s Zankel Hall, the tenor Ian Bostridge and the countertenor Iestyn Davies sang the second Canticle as part of another Britten anniversary series. It was one of the finest vocal recitals in many seasons, 
pairing music of Henry Purcell with the complete cycle of five canticles.

Purcell deeply influenced Britten, inspiring his sometimes ungainly vocal lines, which are often distorted by curious melismatic digressions, and his taste for musical forms such as the passacaglia (a recurring feature and one of Britten’s most common forms of “delayed gratification”). The second Canticle certainly seems inspired by Purcell in spirit, akin to Britten’s reworking of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, with its mix of untrammeled emotion (in Dido’s lament) and middle-school or middle-brow theatricality. At the moment when God stays Abraham’s hand from sacrifice, Britten’s score calls for a furious tremolo in the bass of the piano, a vulgar and blunt gesture reminiscent of silent-film accompaniment, which deflated the almost unbearable tension that Bostridge and Davies had so far sustained. The music recovered, but it is precisely this sort of thing, the wrenching of art from celestial intensity to the aesthetic of a church-cellar coffee hour, that is characteristic of Britten.

The Canticle II was composed in 1952, shortly after Britten finished Billy Budd, another work in which a breach of basic fairness and justice wrenches open the composer’s button-down style. And one of the canticle’s themes recurs in the War Requiem, the composer’s most sustained meditation on unfairness, the existential injustice to young men who bear the brunt of war’s use as a means of policy and politics. All three of these works are also linked by what a French newspaper once called “the composer’s customary intense preoccupation with homosexual love,” either directly (as in Billy Budd), through musical tenderness and the choice of voices (the Canticle II), or as poetry and subtext (in the War Requiem). Maybe one should simply say that they share a common theme of sadism and suffering, enacted between men, often between older and younger men, or men who have greatly different 
power or status.

That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the 
friendship was sundered.

Listeners today need not be so strident as Auden in their intolerance of Britten’s weaknesses. Nor does one have to accept the reflexive British evaluation that Britten was a transformative figure in the world-historical arc of art music. Yet he accomplished a great deal. He re-invented English opera in viable form, an influence seen again and again as young English-speaking composers present new work, such as Nico Muhly’s deeply Britten-indebted Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. Despite his strange tics with text setting, Britten made sung English comprehensible, a lesson that too many young composers do not bother to digest. He left a legacy of at least three operas—
Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream—that still hold the stage and still enthrall audiences. And he left a legacy of smaller, miraculous gems, including the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and Les Illuminations.

The centenary of his birth is being widely celebrated. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra received a rave review in The New York Times for a Carnegie Hall concert performance of Peter Grimes on the night of the anniversary (“incisive and wrenching”), and the opera was also mounted at Vienna’s Staatsoper. Anniversary performances of the War Requiem were heard around the world, and sparked a dialogue in The Washington Post about the work’s merits (“fragmentary, even vague” or “profound and subversive”?). Yet the music is resistant to large, public presentation. Even some fanatical lovers of Britten acknowledge that his last major work, Death in Venice, is best heard alone, in a darkened room, over a set of good headphones. Intimacy was his strength, even when he was trying to make a grand public pronouncement. Some of his thorniest music, such as the Cello Symphony, from 1963, only makes sense if you listen intently to the musician for whom it was composed, Rostropovich, playing it on a Decca recording from 1964. No other cellist can make any sense of it. And that says a lot about Britten’s most inward music, so fine, so particular, and so delicate that it barely stands up to the 
passage of time.

Philip Kennicott is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

  1. The cello suites of Britten are difficult to love, but Rostropovich almost makes them charismatic. The approach is declamatory, with improvisational spontaneity, as if he’s channeling the composer as he thinks aloud. But are precious few cellists who can make the music sound as meaningful as it does in this live recording.

  2. The interface between land and sea in the area around Aldeburgh was intensely meaningful to Britten. Last summer, in honor of the composer’s anniversary, the Aldeburgh Festival staged his Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh, and recorded the results on DVD. 

  3. Few pieces of music in the twentieth century have as strange a history as the Sinfonia da Requiem. The commission came to Britten in 1940—from the Japanese government, which was soliciting music to mark the 2,600 anniversary of the Japanese Empire. Britten wrote some of his darkest music in response, which was ultimately rejected by the Japanese because it “unsuitable for performance on such an occasion as our national ceremony.” It’s difficult to tell with Britten if this was an intentionally ironic response.