Friday, 22 November 2013

Hide in Plain Sight :Benjamin Britten's true legacy

Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago today. He changed British music - and Britain - forever. He's become a celebrity this anniversary year. Thousands all of the world who wouldn't normally think much about "classical music" know who he is.  That's quite some achievement for an intensely private man who didn't play to the crowd or court public adulation. He enjoyed honours when they came his way but they didn't compromise him as an artist and visionary. Yet I wonder. Is Britain really ready for Britten?

Britten was fortunate to come into the world when the world itself was about to change. Empires were collapsing, giving rise to a creative renaissance in all aspects of life - politics, philosophy, literature, visual arts, theatre, film. Music could hardly remain unaffected.  Luckily for Britten, he didn't grow up stifled in the kind of Establishment conformity represented by Charles Villiers Stanford. Yet, more than any other British composer in his time, bar Ralph Vaughan Williams, he absorbed Tudor and Stuart music to create a new, uniquely English idiom. Britten was never part of mainstream "British" music, even diplomatically avoiding the Three Choirs Festival, the finest expression of that tradition.  Yet the Britten industry would have his legacy recreated in cosy, theme park style, as a kind of retro Britishness. Britten is British, yes, but in a distinctively modern way, not insular but receptive to outside influences. Britten may not have been a wild-eyed radical, but he cared about integrity, new music and new ideas.

But is Britain really ready for Britten? There is something very alien and so unclubbable about Britten. So much of his music operates on multiple levels. The War Requiem, for example, (read more here) or Gloriana which has confounded critics since its premiere.(read more here). Do we really begin to understand the moral complexities of Billy Budd or The Rape of Lucretia or Death in Venice? We probably won't, given the popularity of one-dimensional, simplistic productions that skim the surface. But for me that's the fascination of Britten. We've hardly even begun to appreciate just how visionary he really was.

For many years, Britten drove me crazy because I couldn't penetrate his emotional elusiveness. But that's exactly why he fascinates me now. Oddly enough, he's like Boulez, whose emotions are so deeply embedded within his intellect that those who aren't listening carefully might not understand. Britten doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, like Bernstein. He's detached and opaque, but all the more challenging for that. Perhaps his music reflects his personality. It has a dark side, attuned to the supernatural and to moral complexities. Being gay must have had an effect, too, though not in a sensationalist way. If I were to write a book about Britten, I'd call it "Hide in Plain Sight".

Britten's life has been exhaustively documented that there's no real need for more. Instead, we should focus on new ways of interpreting and evaluating. What was Britten's relationship with his father, for example, and why are his women so wooden? What was the effect of the American Adventure?  What do Britten's Innocents really mean? And what may live in Britten's "dark side"? And Britten in the intellectual climate of his times. So much could be done, beside the obsession with trivia. Britten reached out to simple ,ordinary people, but he did not dumb down.

We need to hear Britten in the context of European and even non-European music to appreciate how individual he was. Aldeburgh represents Britten's legacy in an ideal form.  Contrary to populist music history, good composers don't work in "schools". The Britten-Pears Foundation helps composers and musicians find their own way. Britten's commercial pull is so strong that he attracts hangers-on who might think they write in his style, but, almost by definition any paint-by-numbers composer would have been anathema to him. Britten's successors include anyone with a truly individual, original style, like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and even Elliott Carter, a near contemporary who found his personal voice fairly late in life. They carry on (or did, in the case of Carter) the legacy of irreverence, wit and dogged individuality.

Today we celebrate Britten 100, his centenary. But the date is also associated with the assassination of John F Kennedy, on the very same day 50 years ago. Britten and JFK had a common enemy in J Edgar Hoover (read my post on Britten and the FBI here) . Both were liberal for their time and didn't ascribe to what we'd now call "traditional" values. The traditions they respected went much deeper. Sadly, the world of 1963 seems so innocent compared with our world of corporate banditry, political paranoia and wars of attrition. What, one wonders, would Kennedy and Britten have made of our times?  Music doesn't exist in limbo, but in our hearts and minds. Now, I think we need to listen to Britten 's complex moral dilemmas more acutely than ever.

There's more on Britten and Aldeburgh on this site than anywhere else that's not Britten only. Please explore. See also my review of Knussen's centenary concert at Snape Here:


Kathy said...

Anne, WQXR in NY available on the internet - - is playing two 8 hour orgies of Britten at 8 am and 4 pm EST. There is supposed to be some commentary in between the music.

I plan to try to time shift it, but of course it is available to anyone with internet access.

Sorry I don't know much about the program, although they do give scant morsels on the website.

Thought you would be a person who might be interested.

Doundou Tchil said...

In Britain, there's also some Britten