November 22, 1913– Benjamin Britten:
“It is cruel that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.”
Although I am listening to a Classical Music FM station as I compose this column, I do not actually have a driving passion for “serious” music, symphonic works, choral pieces, or what is blanketed as “Classical” music. But, I am interested in Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, because his story is also one of the great love stories, and because he was working during a Golden Age of Gay American and British Composers who all knew and fed off of each other’s artistic energy: Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein.
Britten composed a series of masterpieces, from works for solo piano, oboe and cello, to pieces for chamber ensembles and concertos, and compositions for orchestras both tiny and monumental. He even gave us a full length ballet. His vocal compositions include folk song arrangements, song-cycles setting music to words by Michelangelo, William Blake, W.H. Auden. There is his great masterpiece, War Requiem, with settings to poems by Wilfred Owen written in WW I. But, the musical form for which he is best known is Opera. His Peter Grimes is considered by many of my opera loving friends to be one of the most powerful musical dramas of the last century, and he wrote at least five other landmark operas that are a part of our planet’s major opera companies’ repertory.
The lovely tenor, Peter Pears, was Britten’s musical partner, life partner and muse. Britten wrote many of his greatest vocal compositions specifically for Pears and his unique, expressive voice. Pears and Britten were understandably reticent to talk of being gay. The couple lived in Britain when being a queer carried a career and life destroying prison sentence. It was an era where gays were forced to hide their love.
Britten visited the USA in the spring 1939 and found more than he hoped for. He had come to perform and present some of his compositions. It was supposed to be a short trip, but it ended up lasting several years. War broke out in Europe while he was away and he did not return right away to England. Britten was 26 years old when WW II began, and he would have had to enlist in the British military one way or another.
During the visit, Britten and Pears began a love affair that lasted 40+ years. There is a hotel room in Grand Rapids where they supposedly consummated their union that is a place gay musicians still make a pilgrimage.
The Britten/Pears pair had the kind of “marriage” that gave life to some magnificent music. In a 1943 letter to Pears, who was traveling, Britten wrote:
“Think of all the other married couples who are separated for ever so much longer!”
When Britten left this world, a full decade after the repeal of England’s anti-gay laws, Queen Elizabeth II sent her barely disguised condolences to Pears as “A representative of all who had worked with Lord Britten…”, not even acknowledging that they had been a couple.
The British laws that prohibited homosexual acts were somewhat responsible for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, which he had started composing two years into the Britten/Pears marriage. The libretto shows Grimes as an outsider, alienated from the life of his fishing village which rejects him, just as Britten’s own gayness had isolated him while growing up.
The pair had followed their friend Auden to the USA. It was in America that Britten composed his very first opera, Paul Bunyan, with a libretto by Auden.
Auden stayed in the USA, but The Britten/Pears returned to England in 1942, with Britten declaring conscientious objector status to avoid the army. His choral works were performed in concert halls and Peter Grimes had its premiere in London in 1945. This was his greatest success up to that point in his career. But, Britten began encountering a push-back from the traditional British musical establishment and he withdrew from the London scene. In 1947, he founded the rather provincial English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival as showcases for his own works.
Peter Grimes was the first in a series of operas, including Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn Of The Screw (1954) that share the theme of the outsider in society. Most of his works feature a major character that is excluded or misunderstood.
In the last decade of his life, Britten suffered from bad health and debilitating depression. His later compositions are progressively sparser in texture, including the overtly gay opera Death In Venice (1973), the only one of his operas that I have seen, albeit, on a television broadcast.
I actually came to love the music of Britten late in life because of the way it is featured in the plot and on the soundtrack to one of my very favorite films, Moonrise Kingdom (2012), directed by Wes Anderson, with many of the composer’s selections that feature children’s voices. Anderson, who’s films are kind of a big thing for me, wrote:
“The Britten music had a huge effect on the whole film, I think. The movie is sort of set to it. The play, Noye’s Fludde, that is performed in it, my older brother and I were actually in a production when I was 10 or 11, and that music is something I’ve always remembered, and made a very strong impression on me. It is the color of the movie in a way.”
Many of the Britten tracks on the Moonrise Kingdom soundtrack were lifted from recordings supervised by the composer himself including the delightful, charming The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra conducted by Bernstein.
Britten had initially refused a knighthood, but he accepted a life peerage in 1976 when he was dubbed Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. A few months later he took his final curtain call, gone from a heart attack at his house in Aldeburgh. He is buried in the churchyard there. Pears spent the rest of his life working to insure his husband’s legacy. Pears left this existence in 1986 at 75 years old. He was buried next to Britten.