Am I the only person in the music field who has a problem with Benjamin Britten?
Yesterday, as part of BBC2's 'Summer of Opera' (yes! opera on TV!), they showed a superb film of 'The Turn of the Screw' starring Lisa Milne and Mark Padmore. Afterwards came a documentary about Britten and his feelings for children, in which Wulff Scherchen, a youthful passion of the composer's, spoke about his friendship with Britten for the first time. Again, the programme was excellently made - and one has to be grateful that these things happen at all 'in this day and age'.
Two parts to my Britten problem. One is incidental - the feeling that Somebody Doth Protest Too Much about him. The other is that I find a lot of his music dreary, weak, boring and overrated and suspect that the reason so many people regard him as Britain's greatest composer is that a) he's become a powerful icon for the sizeable and influential gay musical community here and b) everyone else can remember, by his name, that he actually was British.
Britten has a voice of his own, it's true, and an unmistakeable voice. He is also a man of his time: listening to 'The Turn of the Screw' or 'Peter Grimes', one senses provincial England of the mid 20th century at once. Yet response can depend on mood: when Peter Quint and Miss Jessel sing 'The ceremony of innocence is drowned', either one finds it spine-chilling or, um, one can get the giggles. After all, nobody knows what they mean. Nobody ever explains what the hell is going on in this spooky opera. And the way these words are set - those groups of four descending notes with the stresses on the off-beats - feels relatively weak and ineffectual, given that this line is supposed to be the key to the whole thing. Something about Britten is continually anti-climactic. I am not being anti-gay if I say I find him a weak-chinned composer: I'm talking about the music, not the man.
The difference between Britten and Elgar, for me, is that Elgar had his editor, Jaeger, to push him beyond his limits (see my article from The Independent last week). When Elgar tried to shy away from closing the Enigma Variations with a proper finale, or letting the soul come face to face with the almighty in 'Gerontius', Jaeger gave him a piece of his mind and the example of Wagner to follow. It was a sort of English reticence in Elgar that made him want to stand outside while the soul met his maker; and Jaeger declared that if the rest of the work was less good, he'd be content with 'a mere English cantata', but as it was, no way!
Britten never had the advantage of a mentor like Jaeger. Instead - as last night's documentary made clear - he never really grew up. He remained a schoolboy all his life, in essence. If you're fixated on the Molesworth books, Boy's Own, school dinners and the rest of it, how on earth can you handle a full-blown dramatic climax?
There is, of course, something touching, chilling, intimately moving, about Britten's climaxes. The death of Billy Budd. The storm in 'Peter Grimes'. The death of Miles (but what is that 'Malo a naughty boy' song about?!). Britten, more than most composers, chose good libretti for his operas. But one always comes away feeling that something is unfulfilled. Unlike Walton. Unlike, dare I say it, Delius, for whom I have a secret guilty passion. And of course, unlike Elgar, with whom I've gone public recently. Yet today Britten is played abroad more than all the others put together. Britten has become the international face of British music. That, I contend, is a pity. We have better.
Incidentally, why this documentary? Talk about the ceremony of innocence - its premise was that Britten's affinity for children was ever so innocent. That he may have had friendships with teenaged boys, but there was nothing more to it than friendship and if there had been he'd not have done anything about it. That he worshipped youth and beauty, and that was that. Britten Is Innocent. In an age dominated by pruriant tabloids which from time to time decide to 'out' paedophiles, has somebody felt that our official greatest composer had better be defended before he can be attacked?
SPEAKING OF English composers, thanks to John McLaughlin Williams for writing in with nice words about Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. John, I think he's been 'done', biographically, but he's a fascinating figure indeed. And I would suggest that Britten never wrote anything as drop-dead gorgeous as the slow movement of the SCT Violin Concerto.