We are only two months into the Britten centenary year and already books, articles and talks (and, of course, performances) swell the flood of existing biographical studies and the six bulky volumes of diaries and letters. Dead for less than 40 years, Britten is as copiously documented as any English composer except Elgar. Have emails wiped out areas of research? I hope that some teenage composer, a latter-day Britten, is even now baring their musical soul writing candid and maybe scurrilous opinions on the current musical scene in a diary as the young Britten did from 1928.
‘The child is father to the man’ rings true in Britten’s case. Britten the man was a Jekyll and Hyde, with Hyde perhaps too often gaining the upper hand. The sophisticated judgments, often couched in schoolboyish jargon, tell us how Britten discovered music, not only by performing and by reading scores but also by attending concerts and listening avidly to the radio and recordings. As well as, of course, by composing ambitious works galore.
Mr Hyde peeps through many of his adolescent verdicts on music and musicians. He was always a great ‘hater’. As it happens, I clearly remember the BBC announcement of Elgar’s death on 23 February 1934. That evening they broadcast one of Britten’s earliest and finest choral works, A Boy Was Born. Britten did not even mention the great man’s death in his diary. Not surprising, though, when you read what he had written six years earlier (aged 15) after a concert in Queen’s Hall: ‘Elgar Second Symphony. Dreadful nobilmente semplice. I came out after 3rd movement — so bored.’ But at least he went to hear it again: ‘I listen to one minute of Elgar 2 but can stand no more.’ The First Symphony was dismissed even more curtly. Far ahead of most English musicians, Britten had discovered Mahler and found the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen better than the Enigma Variations. He had the grace to admit that it was probably his own fault that he was ‘absolutely incapable’ of enduring Elgar for more than two minutes. But he grew out of it and in 1971, already an OM as Elgar had been, he conducted The Dream of Gerontius at the Aldeburgh Festival and then recorded it, following it with the Introduction and Allegro for Strings.
He hadn’t much time for any of the leading British conductors. Beecham, Henry Wood and Sargent all failed the Britten test. Top of his hate list was one of Elgar’s finest interpreters, Adrian Boult. ‘Terrible execrable conductor’ was a typical response to a Boult performance. There was a personal reason for the vehemence. Boult in 1930 was the first conductor of the newly founded BBC Symphony Orchestra. The man who wanted the job was the composer, viola player and conductor Frank Bridge, who was giving private composition lessons to Britten. ‘When F.B. conducts,’ Britten wrote, ‘the chief advantage is to be able to listen to the music without bothering about the interpretation. The shows are always just right.’
Boult’s conducting of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto Britten described as ‘terrible, vulgar, old-fashioned’; and his Beethoven Seventh Symphony was unscholastic (whatever that meant). His gods were Beethoven and Brahms, but the latter was quickly deposed and his favourite composers at this time were Stravinsky (cautiously), Mahler and Berg. Britten wanted to go to Austria to study with Berg, but the Royal College of Music, to which he had won an open scholarship in 1930, forbade the idea because they had heard that Berg’s morals were suspect.
Britten had little but disdain for the RCM although some of his earliest works were played there. One of the composition professors was the then 60-year-old Ralph Vaughan Williams. Young Britten was ambivalent about VW’s music. He had ample praise for the Tallis Fantasia but after a broadcast of other works he commented: ‘He is a very nice man but he shouldn’t conduct. It was hopeless …I have never felt more depressed for English music.’ In 1936 he and his friend Lennox Berkeley spent an afternoon laughing their way through study scores of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth and William Walton’s First Symphonies.
When he had first heard Walton’s Viola Concerto in 1929 he thought it ‘stood out as a work of genius’. But this enthusiasm soon cooled as he realised that Walton would be his chief rival for the position of ‘white hope of English music’. For the rest of his life, Britten swung between hot and cold where Walton was concerned (Walton had a similar attitude to Britten and his music).
In an extraordinary fluke of time the years 1813 and 1913 saw the birth of three great opera composers, Wagner, Verdi and Britten. If anyone thought or feared that in this centenary year the Englishman’s music would suffer by comparison in such awesome company, they are confounded already. For example, Lohengrin, Tristan, and Parsifal; Rigoletto, Otello and Falstaff; Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd — masterpieces all.
Composers have made an art form of being uncharitable about other composers. For example, Vaughan Williams’s write-off of Mahler as ‘a very tolerable imitation of a composer’ and Stravinsky’s snide summing-up of Ravel as ‘the most perfect of Swiss watchmakers’ and Britten himself in 1971 on Richard Strauss, referring to Der Rosenkavalier as ‘that loathsome opera, which makes me almost physically sick to hear it’. Britten could dish out criticism but even as a mature adult he had such a thin skin where his own works were concerned that he resorted to the cowardly ploy of tearing up any offending letter and returning the shreds to the sender. Another unpleasant facet of his weak character was his ruthless way of terminating friendships if things were not going his way. The soprano Sophie Wyss, the tenor Robert Tear, the conductor Charles Mackerras, the librettist Eric Crozier and many others joined the ranks of ‘Ben’s corpses’. Banishment was usually for life. The more one learns of Britten the man, the less one warms to him. But his music — that is something else!
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013