The trouble with boys

Lebrecht, Norman; May 10 2006
Type of WorkColumn

Anywhere you go in Europe, you will see a pride in national artists. Some years ago, over ten days in Prague and Brno, I saw nine of the 16 operas by Bohuslav Martinu and three by Dvorak. Strauss and Pfitzner are fixtures in Berlin and Vienna. In Paris, Gerard Mortier has made a priority of restoring French masterpieces to the Opéra, starting with Charpentier’s Louise and Halévy’s La Juive. All fit and proper and just as one would expect from public-funded institutions charged with curating the lyric corner of the national genius.

In Britain, to our wretched shame, you can go the length and breadth of the land and from one year to the next without seeing more than two of the ten operas by Benjamin Britten, the only native composer of modern times to warrant the title genius. None of our opera houses, public or private, has performed Britten complete and entire. There is a pledge at the Coliseum to treat him as its ‘house composer’ but renewing one opera a year falls a long way short of presenting the work sequentially and in context. The only company embarked on a Britten cycle is, so far as I am aware, the Monnaie in Brussels, a delightfully enlightened opera house uninhibited by British reserve.

For, as anyone who has sat upon an arts board knows, a prim ambivalence prevails in this country when Britten comes on to the agenda, a squirming in seats and a flurry of excuses that has nothing to do with worthiness of work and everything to do with hoary old tittle-tattle.

The trouble is, in a word, boys.

It is no secret that Britten liked boys, and liked them young. He wrote them into some 30 works. In his operas boys are pivotal, start to finish. The death of a boy is the beginning and end of Peter Grimes; watching a boy on the beach precipitates Death in Venice. There is no masking the composer’s affinity for the puerile, a fascination glossed away as Peter Pannish while he was alive but hedged nowadays by widespread and wholly justified anxieties of paedophilia, a malignant vice borne on internet wings.

It is this love of boys that triggers our squeamishness about Britten and the sooner we get to the root of it the sooner we will be able to embrace the work without qualm. A new book, out next month from Faber, takes a giant stride in that direction.

Britten’s Children started out in 2004 as an uncommonly intelligent and unapologetic arts documentary for BBC2 and is developed here by its producer John Bridcut into a clinical and comprehensive study of a great composer and his interest in small boys, augmented with untold encounters and archival revelations. Bridcut interviewed some two dozen boys who had close contact with Britten, among them several that he fostered in musical careers –

  • the composers Michael Berkeley and Robert Saxton,
  • the conductor Benjamin Zander,
  • the tenor Adrian Thompson.
  • Most celebrated of his boys was David Hemmings, 12 years old when he created the role of Miles in Turn of the Screw at its Venice premiere in 1954, a jump-start to his film stardom.
  • Other chums were the sons of Britten’s circle of friends and colleagues, few of whom saw much amiss in allowing their lads to bathe in the bracing sea at Aldeburgh with a buck-naked adult composer who took unconcealed pleasure in their company. Those were, assuredly, unquestioning times.

Britten assisted with the boys’ tuition and maintained an avuncular interest in their progress, sending gifts on their wedding day. Some kissing is reported, nothing more. None of the boys interviewed was harmed physically or morally. Most treasured the connection even when, as in Hemmings’ case, it was severed abruptly the moment his voice broke. There were petty jealousies when one boy saw Britten with the next, but none of the rancour that pervaded many of Britten’s friendships with adults, whom he held in suspicion and despatched with brutality.

Britten was a child at heart, concludes Bridcut, innocent and repressively puritan, in no sense a predator. His verdict is confirmed in the operas, where the boy is always in need of protection, never up for seduction. Tadzio, in Thomas Mann’s novella, minces around Aschenbach in ways that Britten blocked in his version of Death in Venice. Britten’s Children is not the final word on the boys but it is encouraging to learn that Bridcut’s research was stimulated by the Britten estate through its chairman, the composer Colin Matthews, in the interest of an openness that should help to redeem Britten from nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

Yes, he was interested in boys, but they were no more than reflections of the boy in himself, an inner voice that was, as he sometimes hinted, the source of his inspiration, an ideal of beauty and goodness.

I received a letter recently from someone who was approached after a school show in 1945 by two men, scouting on behalf of Benjamin Britten. My correspondent failed to get the part of apprentice in Peter Grimes (it went to Leonard Thompson) but it is impossible imagine that the respected librettist Eric Crozier or the chorusmaster Arthur Oldham would have gone around procuring for Britten if there were any suspicion that the boys might be misused. Crozier later fell out with Britten and accused him of ‘corrupting’ boys, but he specifically excluded physical abuse.

The time has come to lay the rumours to rest and concentrate on the benefice of the Britten legacy.

Apart from the music, Britten left a festival and a retreat at Aldeburgh where musicians go to explore ideas and collaborations. It is the only place in Europe beyond music college where a pianist can practice with singers and a soloist can find new partners.

The enterprise, chaired by Lord Stevenson, is in expansion mode. But after gifts from the Arts Council, the Britten-Pears Foundation and private patrons, the £12 million appeal is £2.3m short and the change is proving hard to come by for Aldeburgh is off the fashionable circuit and Britten, in some quarters, is still a smutty word.

Enough of that. We’re in a new century and the linen that has been hung out to dry. We must accept Britten for what he was, a tormented innocent, and find the courage to stage his work coherently for the first time in a comprehensive cycle.