Britten's Children

The Observer, The Guardian

Mars-Jones, Adam
Issue04 June 2006
Type of WorkBook review

Observer review

Lie back and think of Britten

Adam Mars-Jones finds that John Bridcut has set himself a daunting task in Britten's Children - to prove whether 'Darling Benjamin' was a mentor or a menace to boys

  • Britten's Children by John Bridcut Faber, £18.99, pp334

This book is a failure and much the better for it. The author sets out to separate the faintly creepy from the wholesome in Benjamin Britten, and to prove the innocence of his dealings with young males. At the end, I still didn't know what to think, and I wasn't convinced John Bridcut knew either.

The case against Britten was made most starkly by Eric Crozier, his librettist for Albert Herring:

  • 'Having been corrupted as a boy [supposedly raped by a master at his school] he seemed to be under a compulsion to corrupt other small boys.'

At the time he wrote this unpublished memorandum, Crozier was smarting from his exclusion from Imogen Holst's book about Britten (such disappearances were recurrent in Britten's life). The rape claim has no other source. On the other hand, why lie in an unpublished memorandum?

The warmest case for Britten is made by Bridcut himself:

  • 'In his dealings with children, Britten was at his most engaging and lovable - the adult friend and collaborator we would all like to be.'

In both this sentence and the book's title, he prefers the word 'children' to 'boys', but it's the boys people worry about. As a letter from Peter Pears, listing the lovely things in the world, makes clear - 'children, boys, sunshine, the sea, Mozart, you and me' - children and boys were different things.

From early in life, Britten had close relationships with handsome teenagers. On his side, there was often a sexual attraction. The boys themselves were sometimes unaware, sometimes complicit. Ronan Magill, the last such figure in Britten's life, wasn't conscious of the charge in their relationship at the time, but says now:

  • 'If he did [feel attraction], then I'm glad that he did - if I could make him think that way for even five seconds.'

When it comes to the question of how far attraction was physically expressed, Bridcut sometimes leans on the evidence.

In 1936, Britten invited Harry Morris, 13, on a family holiday in Cornwall (Britten's brother and sister and their families were also present). According to Morris, Britten came into his room one night and made what he understood to be a sexual approach. The boy screamed and hit his host with a chair, attracting the attention of Britten's sister, Beth. Harry returned to London in the morning.

Harry Morris died in 2002 and the information comes from his family, but that isn't a reason to doubt it. Morris remembered the approach being made on the second night, though, in fact, he stayed a fortnight, which need only mean the unpleasantness obliterated the idyll. Though Bridcut writes that 'the account is more about a sense of threat than about an actual incident', to my mind the scream and the use of furniture make it an incident.

There's something ignoble about suggesting that perhaps the boy

  • 'was disturbed by the continual arguments within the Britten family and absconded to London, armed with a story to explain his departure'.

There are other stories to tell, after all - Harry's mother didn't believe him anyway - and there would be no call to repeat this one in later life. Reluctantly, Bridcut accepts the likeliness of his hero's fall from grace, makes excuses (death of parents, influence of Auden and Isherwood) and then asserts:

  • 'If there ever was a "moment of madness" that so distressed Harry Morris, it was not to recur.'

That 'moment of madness' is very much the language of spin

  • (traditionally used when heterosexual MPs find themselves asking directions on Clapham Common late at night).

Time to draw a line under this unfortunate episode and move on.

What we move on to, fascinatingly, is something that had vanished from the record: Britten's involvement with a 17-year-old German boy, Wulff Scherchen (they had first met in 1934 when Wulff was 13). Bridcut conducted extensive interviews with Scherchen, now in his eighties, and who celebrated his diamond wedding in 2003, for the television documentary on which this book is based.

This was clearly an important relationship, which inspired at least one major work, Young Apollo (soon suppressed by Britten). Bridcut speculates that it was influential on a decision that did Britten's reputation much harm, the prewar trip to America which became an extended absence. Possibly Britten wanted to put distance between himself and Scherchen (though his dumping skills seem to have been more than adequate). Possibly, too, though there is no evidence for this, Peter Pears was only able to work his romantic magic on that trip thanks to the remoteness of the competition. It's worth remembering that, until 1967, Britten's relationship with Pears and with Scherchen, if sexually expressed, would be on an equal footing of illegality, though Pears was perhaps more likely to be discreet.

The elderly Scherchen seems baffled by the intensity and forwardness of his letters. In his very first letter, he refers to Mae West (hot stuff for the period) and wonders if 'Darling Benjamin' would be a suitable form of address. Later, he teases Britten with being a 'sex maniac'. Even in 1942, when they were more or less estranged, Britten refers to Scherchen wanting 'to come back tonight'.

Obviously, octogenarians with seven great-grandchildren may not enjoy rehashing the adventures of their youth. Still, it seems fair to say that if the love of men was, in Scherchen's case, the path not taken, he trotted happily some way along it, enjoying a number of delightful picnics before he doubled back.

With Pears installed as a sort of combined spouse and chaperone, favourites were welcomed but limits were set. The chosen boys tended to be more or loss posh, and both sensitive and sporty.

For Britten, the essence of boyish beauty was movement, which was why he made Tadzio in Death in Venice a dancing role. Parents were usually grateful rather than suspicious

  • (Ronald Duncan willingly made over part of the parenting of his son, Roger, and forwarded his school report).

Innocence and sensuality seemed to co-exist in Britten, as they do in children, but an adult's innocence must always be held to account. He was lucky. There was gossip, but never quite scandal, though in himself, by virtue of being an artist with an obsessive outdoor streak, Britten combined the two arch stereotypes of the corrupting homosexual - the aesthete and the scoutmaster. Bridcut mentions a day of composition, rehearsals and performance into which he managed to cram four swims.

To describe an aspect of Britten's relationship with children, Bridcut uses the term 'paedocratic', not a word that will widely catch on, perhaps. Britten liked children to be in charge. The freer they were, the better he liked it. He never talked down to children and, in sports, never lost by choice.

The treble voice is a key element in Britten's sound-world, though he had different values musically and personally. Only in vocal terms did he like rough trade, disdaining the 'cathedral hoot' and having a particular soft spot for the Wandsworth Boys' Choir. As Bridcut puts it:

  • 'Britten was looking for the energy with which boys shout at each other on the football field.'

In June 1958, Aldeburgh and neighbouring towns were awash with buses bearing children for rehearsals of Noye's Fludde, that supremely 'paedocratic' entertainment, rewarding, as it does, very modest levels of skill (three of the violin parts are graded by difficulty).

Charles Mackerras, conductor of the first performance, knew no better than to snigger at the number of boys surrounding Britten. His remarks were conveyed to Britten, who summoned Mackerras to justify himself at the Red House, saying:

  • 'Am I a lecher just because I enjoy the company of children?'

Mackerras admits he didn't make a good job of explaining himself at the time, and doesn't do much better now. Bridcut comments of John Cranko, who passed the comments on to Britten, that this was an odd way of showing loyalty. Perhaps, but sneering was an odd way for Mackerras to show respect for the composer with whom he had been working so closely.

There's a (French) theory that, in English culture, the breaking of a voice is seen as a tragedy, as the two-gendered boy becomes merely a male. Other languages, it's true, talk of a voice ripening rather than breaking. After David Hemmings's voice had broken in mid-performance of The Turn of the Screw, Britten dropped him. Yet there were favourites to whom he remained close long after that rite of passage.

It was marriage that spoiled things then, not puberty. And when one of the trebles in the original Noye's Fludde had his voice break, Britten didn't replace him but tweaked the part into the tenor range (a tenor it remains).

Though in Bridcut's judgment, the canticle Abraham and Isaac acquires an entirely new dimension when Abraham's part is sung by a boy's voice on the point of breaking, it was written for Kathleen Ferrier. More likely that for Britten, a boy's voice breaking was an inconvenience rather than a tragedy. There would always be other voices, other boys.