Rupert Christiansen

A gift for friendship

Rupert Christiansen on a selection of Benjamin Britten's letters

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Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume IV, 1952-1957

Edited by Philip Reed, Mervyn Cooke and Donald Mitchell

The Boydell Press, pp. 633, £

This magnificent edition of Benjamin Britten’s letters reaches its fourth volume under the auspices of a new publisher, the Boydell Press (despite subsidy, Faber simply couldn’t make it pay), and the first thing to say is that the standards of production, design and copy-editing have not suffered (misspellings of names such as John Lanigan, Roderic Dunnett and Geoffrey Willans were the only errors that I picked up), while the scholarly quality of the annotation continues to be quite superb — meticulous, imaginative, and illuminating.

Here we are taken through five important years, marked by the birth of the masterpieces Gloriana, Winter Words, The Turn of the Screw and Noye’s Fludde as well as the most significant flop of Britten’s maturity, the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas — a score over-weighted by the influence of the Balinese gamelan, which he had encountered on a long holiday in Asia in 1956.

‘Britten was rarely given to making statements about his own music, or his own aesthetic,’ the editors comment, and anyone seeking insight into the creative process or evidence of the dark night of the soul of genius should look elsewhere. There is no agony here, only irritation at life not allowing him to get on with the job in hand. But Pagodas seems misjudged from the start, beset by delays in the schedule and complications in the collaboration with the choreographer John Cranko and the Royal Opera House. ‘This beastly ballet’, Britten calls it in exasperation at one point, and you feel that his heart was never really in it.

‘Ben couldn’t stand people who were not loyal’ asserts Jeremy Cullum, Britten’s long-serving and suffering secretary. This is clearly true, though it raises the question of Britten’s own loyalty, both towards the boys he befriended and then dropped as they reached adolescence and towards colleagues who in some way offended or disappointed him. Here we have, for example, the unpleasant business over the sacking of Basil Douglas, manager of Britten’s English Opera Group — although one is left wondering if such situations can ever be handled without causing hurt or resentment. Britten clearly had good grounds for getting rid of Douglas, and the terms of his dismissal were scarcely inhuman.

Equally, it’s hard to criticise Britten over his relationship with Roger Duncan, the son of his librettist Ronald Duncan. In what was admittedly a rather unusual proposal, Britten had asked the latter (whose marriage was rocky) if he could serve as an adoptive father to the boy, and the result was a warm and close bond which lasted until Roger Duncan’s marriage and emigration naturally diminished its intensity. Nothing ‘untoward’ seems to have occurred, and Duncan remembers his père adoptif with great affection. Nevertheless, Duncan’s request that Britten’s letters to him should be printed here with excisions seems unwise, and can only fuel prurient suspicion.

Elsewhere, Britten’s sweetness and sympathy are unambiguously communicated. It is too seldom remarked that his infatuation with boys didn’t preclude him from forming a quasi-marital relationship with someone of his own age (he was 39 when these diaries begin), and here his letters to Peter Pears (‘my darling’, ‘my poppage’, ‘my pyje’) are richly loving and committed. He also emerges as someone with a real gift for close friendship too, taking time out of his impossible schedule to write at length to the likes of Elizabeth Mayer, Mary Potter and Lu and Peg Hesse, as well as to intimate collaborators such as Basil Coleman, Imogen Holst and William Plomer. Yes, he could be tetchy, as someone in his position needs to be, but there is a marked absence of malice or egomania in this correspondence.

Innumerable moments and items of incidental interest are thrown up in the course of 600 pages. For example, Britten’s idea of working with Plomer on a children’s opera based on Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr Todd founders on copyright difficulties and transmutes into another intriguing but ultimately aborted idea — Tyco the Vegan, a ‘space-age’ fantasy. Later he gets very close to embarking on an ambitious oratorio for York Minster on the theme of Saint Peter (libretto by Ronald Duncan) — a project which the next volume will presumably show evolving into Coventry Cathedral’s War Requiem.

The editors magisterially debunk Valentine Cunningham’s notion that Miles’ recital of Latin nouns in The Turn of the Screw is a sort of phallic Polari code and ponder Flanders and Swann’s parodic account of Britten’s career. We also learn that Britten had a lady stalker, and that he wanted Callas to play Queen Elizabeth in Gloriana. But perhaps the most haunting vignette is a footnoted extract from Imogen Holst’s diary, recording how Britten had told her that if Pears ‘found the right girl to marry he supposed he’d have “to lump it” ’ — not a revelation of Pears’ bisexuality, but a sobering reference to the fear spread by the anti-homosexual campaign of 1953 instigated by the Home Secretary David Maxwell- Fyffe.