Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Boy wonder growing up - Britten's Diaries

Benjamin Britten was uncommonly precocious as a boy. He kept hundreds of early compositions, meticulously ordered, almost like an old man in a boy's body. Read about the Red House exhibition in Aldeburgh and the new catalogue of his juvenilia HERE.

Now there's a new edition of Britten's letters from 1928 to 1938, "Journeying Boy : The Diaries of the young Benjamin Britten" ed John Evans, Faber, 504pp) Here he's off to school and then to the RCM, and thence into the world. These are his formative years, when he starts getting recognized as a composer, meets Auden, Berkeley and Pears, and to some extent comes to terms with his sexuality.

Each entry in the book is but a few paragraphs - Britten was never one to pour out his innermost soul, at least not in words others could see. Many of the entries are straightforward notes: he ate Italian at Bertorelli's, bought gramophone records at HMV (itemized) and liked cakes at Lyons Tea shops. Trivia perhaps but you get the flavour of the man, as Evans, the editor leaves in spelling mistakes and scribbles, which is a good thing.

Why "Journeying boy?" Britten is setting forth, into the world, and in German that's "fahrenden Gesellen". Since Britten notes nearly everything he hears, even on radios in other people's houses, we can track his influences. Lots and lots of Mahler – he heard Alfred Cortot play Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in May 1931 and Henry Wood conduct Mahler's 8th Symphony in 1938 ("execrable performance!"), and plays Kindertotenlieder when he feels down about music. It's good to hear when and how he listens, though it's not news how much Mahler meant to him, although he and Mahler are very different as composers.

Britten is unequivocally "European". It's clear early on there's no way he's following the usual British composer career path. He likes Grace Williams (with whom he goes to see Emil and the Detectives) and thinks her Psalms are the best thing in a BBC concert which includes "dreadful concoctions by E Maconchy, R O Morris, Robin Milford and RVW (5 dreadfully boring mystical songs. It is concerts like this which make me absolutely despair of British music and its critics". Years later, he and Lennox Berkeley pass a pleasant evening dissecting and deriding William Walton. His disdain for British music and conductors is well documented but it's interesting to read how well he knew them, too. He sang RVW in a college choir.

Lowestoft and childhood recede rapidly. Britten's mother moves to Essex and takes up Christian Science. They visit Vienna and hear Mengelberg conduct Mahler 4 ("3rd mvt too long"). Elisabeth Schumann sings. He goes hill walking with Erwin Stein.

Nonetheless, Britten isn't quite as secure as he'd like to be. In 1937, he has dinner with Isherwood, Auden and friends "They are nice people, but I am not up to their mark tonight -feeling dazed, stupid & incredibly miserable-& so leave them at 9 with an overwhelming inferiority complex & longing for bed- if it weren't so single".

From comments in the diaries it seems that Britten wasn't in the closet. He's quite candid, about what happens with Berkeley, for example, and he's completely out to his brother who usually disapproves of what he does, but is surprisngly helpful. He and Piers Dunkerley go to Disney cartoons. "I am very fond of him - thank heaven not sexually , but I am getting too such a condition that I am lost wthout some children (of either sex) near me" Britten makes a clear distinction between his feelings for adults and children. He's quite open about what he does with Lennox Berkeley. His feelings for children aren't solely sexual as he's quite taken with Shirley Temple as millions were then, quite innocently.

In August 1937, Britten goes on holiday with friends, family and a boy called Harry Morris. Then Britten and his brother "have a first rate bust up". It's something to do with"'in loco parentis' wrath at my so-called conciet & bumptiousness". The rest of the holiday is "split", yet Britten says "Personally I'm not distressed". We don't know from Britten what happened but John Evans, in his editorial notes, says that blank pages in the diary "speak volumes" and makes a case that Britten's brother disapproved of the relationship, though there are long breaks in the diaries elsewhere. In later life, Morris was haunted by the idea that Britten made advances to him, but there's no specific evidence and it's third party .

Curiously, Evans makes a note (p 479) "One suspects that if (Britten) had been born into a different generation of gay men, he would have found a need to adopt a child, as so many gay couples do today" Perhaps I'm naive but I think gay couples adopt because they like being parents, as opposed to having unhealthy interests. All along, Britten's been helping Spanish orphans - indeed Morris was introduced as a potential protégé. So the idea of do-gooding isn't so far fetched. The Britten-Pears Foundation was Britten and Pears' legacy, their "child" so to speak.

Evans also suggests that the diaries end "abruptly" because of Britten's love for Wulff Schechen. On the other hand, there are other gaps in the diaries. In any case, Britten's blossoming relationship with Peter Pears, and their trip to America changed Britten's life decisively.

This is an interesting book if you're fairly up to speed on Britten and his circle: otherwise the proliferation of dates, travel plans and first names might not mean much. Diaries are tools, to be used in conjunction with other material. OPn nthe other hand, if you know anything about Britten, there's nothing new here. Evans suggests reading Bridcut regarding Britten's sexuality, but I suspect the truth will never be clear. Bridcut had an agenda, he was making a sensation TV show, so if Evans cites him as a source, it's worrying.

Britten's letters have been edited by Donald Mitchell (a monument) and Humphrey Carpenter's biography remains the basic text. There's a new book out, too, "Benjamin Britten: New perspectives in his life and work" ed Lucy Walker, published by Boydell, almost always one of the best music book publishers. But having shelled out big on the diaries, I'll have to wait, though the Walker book looks really interesting.

1 comment:

Gwyn Parry-Jones said...

Hi, I'm aware this is several yuears old; but I thought I'd nonetheless pop in a comment about the title 'Journeying Boy'. The Mahler reference is interesting, and far from irrelevant. But the more direct one is to one of Britten's songs, a setting of Thomas Hardy in the cycle 'Winter Words'. The song's called 'Midnight on the Great Western, or The Journeying Boy', and that phrase recurs in the first line of each stanza.
Excuse the pedantry! Thanks for the interesting article,
Gwyn Parry-Jone,
p-j@supanet.com