Rupert Christiansen

A gift for friendship

Rupert Christiansen on a selection of Benjamin Britten's letters

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.

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