This spellbinding centenary biography by Neil Powell looks at the music, the life, and the legacy of the greatest British composer of the twentieth century
Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, in the East Suffolk town of Lowestoft. Displaying a passion and proficiency for music at an early age, to the delight of his mother, Edith, a talented amateur musician herself, he began composing music when he was only five years old. After studying at the Royal College of Music, Britten went on to write documentary scores for the General Post Office Film Unit, where he met and collaborated with the poet W. H. Auden.
Of more lasting importance was Britten's introduction in 1937 to the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become the inspirational center of his emotional and musical life. Their partnership lasted nearly four decades, during a dangerous time when homosexuality was illegal in England. Conscientious objectors, Britten and Pears followed Auden to America before the war began in 1939. While there, they joined the extraordinary Brooklyn ménage of George Davis, Louis MacNeice, and Paul Bowles.
Eventually intense homesickness, provoked in part by George Crabbe's poem "Peter Grimes," drove the pair home to East Anglia in 1942 and gave Britten the inspiration for his finest opera. Throughout his career, Britten did not want modern music to be just for "the cultured few" and instead always composed his music to be "listenable-to." The shared quotidian lives of Britten and Pears unfold in this intimate biography and the story of two men who created a truly remarkable legacy.
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Neil Powell is the author of biographies on George Crabbe and Kingsley and Martin Amis, as well as seven collections of poetry. He has contributed to numerous journals and newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement. Powell now lives in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived for the last thirty years of his life.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Suffolk coastal resort of Lowestoft, where Benjamin Britten was born in 1913, was described in the mid-nineteenth century as ‘a handsome and improving market town, bathing-place, and sea port’ which, ‘when viewed from the sea, has the most picturesque and beautiful appearance of any town on the eastern coast’.1 This was just before the arrival of the railway in 1847 and the massive development of South Lowestoft, between Lake Lothing and the previously separate villages of Kirkley and Pakefield, by Sir Morton Peto of Somerleyton Hall. Thirty years later, Anthony Trollope would choose Lowestoft as the setting for a pivotal chapter in his novel The Way We Live Now, transporting three characters – Paul Montague, Winifred Hurtle and Roger Carbury – to the town: Paul rashly meets Mrs Hurtle there and bumps into Roger, who has been his rival for the hand of another woman. At that time, South Lowestoft’s principal building was the Royal Hotel of 1849: though unnamed by Trollope, it is evidently the scene of Paul Montague and Winifred Hurtle’s meeting. In one filmed version of The Way We Live Now, part of the episode takes place on a hotel balcony, from which the former lovers watch the sun set over the sea; but this is something they couldn’t have done in Lowestoft, since it is the most easterly point on the English coastline, although on a clear morning you might see the sun rise. What is just as likely to greet you, if you look out from the Victorian houses of Kirkley Cliff Road, across the slender green space of the bowls club towards the beach and sea, is an easterly onshore breeze and sleet in the wind.
During the early years of the last century, one of these houses, 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, was occupied by a dentist, Robert Victor Britten, his wife Edith Rhoda (née Hockey) and their family. A semi-detached villa with its entrance lobby to the left-hand side, it was to contain a dental practice for most of the twentieth century and is now a small hotel called Britten House; opposite, next to the bowling green, there’s a car park adorned with aluminium seats and cycle racks, flying-saucer lamp posts and a few municipal saplings in little gravelled squares. Robert Britten, whose father ended up running a dairy business in Maidenhead, where he died in 1881, had originally hoped to be a farmer, but this ambition was thwarted by his lack of the necessary capital. Instead, he trained at Charing Cross Hospital before working as an assistant dentist in Ipswich and, in 1905, setting up his own practice at 46 Marine Parade, Lowestoft; three years later, his growing family and increasing prosperity prompted him to move the mile further south to Kirkley Cliff Road. There, every day at eleven o’clock, he would habitually leave his ground-floor surgery for a fortifying mid-morning whisky, ascending to the first-floor sitting room which he called ‘Heaven’; downstairs, he seems to have implied, was the other place. There’s a hint in this habit of that continuous rumbling dissatisfaction, not unlike toothache, with which Graham Greene so memorably burdened his dentist, Mr Tench, in The Power and the Glory. Yet, probably because he didn’t relish his profession, Robert Britten’s patients found him sympathetic and friendly; he was able to share and respond to their feelings to a greater extent than a more enthusiastic practitioner of his craft might have done.
Robert had met his future wife while studying dentistry at Charing Cross, but there was already a connection between their two families: Edith and her sisters had attended the same school as Robert’s sisters – Miss Hinton’s School for Girls, Maidenhead – where Florence Britten and Sarah Hockey were exact contemporaries. Edith’s father, William Henry Hockey, was a Queen’s Messenger at the Home Office: the family’s staff flat had a misleadingly grand address in Whitehall, and it was from there in September 1901 that the eldest daughter married Robert Britten at St John’s, Smith Square. Edith was a strikingly attractive and talented young woman who might have expected something better than marriage at the age of twenty-eight to a dentist four years her junior, had it not been for her socially compromised background: her father was illegitimate and her mother sufficiently unstable to have spent much of her life in homes. But Robert was young, handsome and something of a challenge, for drink and recklessness had already ruined both of his brothers. Determined to save her husband and children from a similar fate, Edith’s prescription was moderation and music, and it seems to have worked.
By 1913, Robert was thirty-six and Edith forty years old: they had three children – Barbara (born in Ipswich on 11 June 1902), Robert or Bobby (born in Lowestoft on 28 January 1907) and Elizabeth, known as Beth (born in Lowestoft on 10 June 1909) – and they thought their family complete. So their fourth child was what parents are sometimes apt to describe, with a knowing and self-congratulatory smile, as a ‘mistake’. He was born at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road on 22 November, which is the feast day of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. As if that were not omen enough, he was given the first name not only of his father’s younger brother but, as Edith at least would have been very well aware, of England’s most eminent living composer, Edward Elgar, who in the preceding five years had produced a flurry of major works including the two completed symphonies (1908, 1911), the violin concerto (1910) and The Music Makers (1912). But the Brittens’ youngest son would always be called by his middle name – Benjamin or ‘Beni’, ‘Benjy’ and finally ‘Ben’ – and, as we shall see, he would grow up to have mixed feelings about Elgar.
His father had no interest in music: he was, said Britten, ‘almost anti-musical, I’m afraid’.2 The musical ability and ambition was all on his mother’s side: of the seven Hockey children, at least three pursued musical careers, most notably Edith’s brother Willie, who was organist at St Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich, conductor of the Ipswich Choral Society and a professional singing teacher. He gave his nephew, for his ninth birthday, a copy of Stainer and Barrett’s A Dictionary of Musical Terms (1889), which in ordinary circumstances might have seemed an overambitious or over-optimistic present. By this time, Benjamin would sometimes stay with his Uncle Willie and Auntie Jane at their home in Berners Street, Ipswich, from where his earliest surviving letter home was written on 25 April 1923: in this, he is more excited by a visit to the railway station and the sight of a new L&NER engine, ‘green with a gold rim round its chimmeny’, than by anything specifically musical. Nevertheless, Marian Walker, a family friend, remembered that when she asked Britten ‘Where did your music come from?’ he replied: ‘I had rather a reprobate old uncle, but he was intensely musical, and I think it was he who originally told me that he preferred to read a score rather than hear anything played.’3
So where did his music come from? Uncle Willie, supplying the crucial distinction between the practitioner’s pleasure in the score and the listener’s in the performance, is clearly part of the answer. But little Benjamin showed conspicuous ability, or so his doting mother supposed, from the moment his infant hand touched the piano in the upstairs drawing room: ‘Dear pay pano,’ he would demand at the age of two, liking to think ‘Dear’ was his name because that’s what people called him.4 Edith was particularly keen that he should be a musical genius, since her two daughters were as unmusical as their father while Bobby, her elder son, preferred to play ragtime; she convinced herself that her younger son would one day be ranked as the ‘fourth B’, alongside Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – although, as things turned out, a more relevant trinity of Bs would be Bridge, Berg and Berkeley. There is a peculiar photograph, taken when he was about seven years old, of the small boy seated at the piano, upon which half a dozen open scores have been ingeniously displayed: whether they are parts to be played simultaneously or pieces to be performed in rapid succession isn’t clear; but the photograph is evidently intended as a joke, since another taken at about the same time shows him tackling a single piece in the ordinary way while, seated on the sofa, his mother listens politely and an unmusical sister reads a book. The point of the first photograph, of course, is that this is a child of prodigious virtuosity; yet virtuosity isn’t the same as creativity. ‘Where did his musical skills come from?’ isn’t the same question as ‘Where did his music come from?’ The latter may prove the more difficult and interesting of the two.
Benjamin received his first semi-formal musical instruction from his mother at the age of five or six; two years later, he began piano lessons with Miss Ethel Astle ARCM, the younger of two sisters who ran the nearby pre-preparatory school called Southolme, at 52 Kirkley Cliff Road. Although he would later praise Miss Astle’s ‘impeccable’ teaching, adding that those with whom he subsequently studied at the Royal College of Music ‘commented on the really first-rate ground-work that I had received’,5 there is no reason to suppose that she was anything much more than a perfectly decent and unexceptional provincial piano teacher. She used the ‘Seppings Music Method’, a rather cumbersome contraption consisting of blocks and cards to be fitted on to wooden staves: like many another ‘progressive’ educational invention of the era, it looks to the uninstructed eye to be more trouble than the conventional grind, although her pupil would remember his ‘early musical days’ with Miss Astle as ‘always interesting and entertaining’.6 She was also a regular participant at Mrs Britten’s fearsome musical soirées where, according to a fellow performer, there was ‘one piece that she always played, and played quite well . . . and it absolutely horrified me, the whole performance’.7 These soirées, though partly designed to show off the musical talents of her younger son, were equally an expression of Edith’s social ambition: the status of dentistry as a profession was ambiguous, so that the Brittens belonged neither to the gentry nor to the tradespeople, and musical parties were one way of joining, or even creating, a cultured social circle. Visitors to the Britten household noticed how, on other occasions, Bobby would have been instructed to play something light and welcoming as the guests arrived; while if Benjamin were playing the square piano in the attic on a warm day with the windows open, a crowd would gather on the pavement beneath to listen. Edith’s apparently fantastic expectations of Benjamin’s musical ability were thus complicated by something altogether more local and pragmatic: music as a means of social advancement. Robert Britten was less bothered than his wife about his status; as for the illustrious prospect of his younger son’s musical career, he thought the whole idea was absurd. His cautious scepticism, it should be added in his defence, sprang less from his hostility to music than from his own experience of disappointed ambitions. Nevertheless, the combination of an obsessively pushy mother and a sternly unconvinced father might have been enough to put a less committed child than Benjamin off music for life.
Among Edith Britten’s circle of musical acquaintances was Audrey Alston, a clergyman’s wife who lived at Framingham Earl, just south of Norwich. Her son John was almost the same age as Benjamin; the two boys would play duets together, each mother privately certain that her own son would be the greater musician. Audrey herself was the viola player in the Norwich String Quartet and in 1923, when he was ten years old, she took Benjamin on as a viola pupil. She was evidently a fine musician and a gifted teacher, but her influence was to be even more momentous in other ways. Firstly, and most simply, she got Ben away from Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft, which contained his entire life: family, home, piano teacher, pre-prep school and prep school. Secondly, she encouraged him to attend concerts in Norwich: since his father refused to have either a gramophone or a radio in the house, his childhood experience of live performance had been restricted to what was possible in the sitting room or at church (he said that his early knowledge of orchestral music came from ‘ploughing through the great symphonies’ in piano duet arrangements with family or friends). Thirdly, she was a friend of the composer Frank Bridge, who stayed with the Alstons when he conducted The Sea at the Norwich Triennial Festival in October 1924 and again three years later when he returned to conduct the premiere of the festival’s commission, Enter Spring. On this occasion, Audrey Alston introduced her promising pupil, still a thirteen-year-old in his last year at prep school, to the composer: it was a meeting which was to have the most profoundly influential and far-reaching consequences for Benjamin Britten’s musical future.
Thus, the answer to the simpler question – ‘Where did his musical skills come from?’ – is actually quite straightforward: from his genes; from his mother and his uncle; from a piano teacher in Suffolk and a viola teacher in Norfolk; from home and church. In all this, his experience was not so different from that of thousands of other children: when he claimed, in 1968, to have ‘come from a very ordinary middle-class family’,8 he was almost telling the truth. Attempting to answer the more difficult question – ‘Where did his music come from?’ – will suggest, among other things, why that ‘almost’ is there.
We need, first of all, to return to Kirkley Cliff: to the fact that it is, precisely, a cliff, although a fairly modest one. The sound of the North Sea – or the German Ocean, as it was still called in 1913 – rattling over the pebbled beach and beating against it was Ben’s constant childhood companion from the day he was born; he once told Donald Mitchell that ‘the sound of rushing water’9 was his earliest memory, although to his sister Beth he said, more prosaically, that the sound he remembered was the gas hissing as he was born. As a boy, he would spend hours on the beach below the family home, often playing a solitary version of tennis against the concrete wall at the foot of the cliff; he was a strong swimmer, too, unintimidated by rough seas or tricky cross-currents. Even when he was a student in London he longed to return to the sea; and, from the moment he bought the Old Mill at Snape in 1937 until his death in 1976, his own permanent home would always be within a mile or two of it. He always needed, he said in 1960, ‘that particular kind of atmosphere that the house on the edge of the sea provides’.10 But if the North Sea can be companionable, it can also be destructive. The Brittens’ aptly named Nanny Walker always took the children on interesting afternoon walks and, when asked where they were going, liked to reply, ‘There and back to see how far it is’: 11 a favourite destination was nearby Pakefield, so they could discover whether any more houses had lately fallen over the cliff. Today, the lanes there still peter out uncertainly where other vanished lanes should be, while the parish church stands within a few feet of the coastal path, rather than in a village centre. And the sea has a further effect on the lives of those who grow up or live adjacent to it: the ordinarily accessible world is reduced by half. The inland dweller has four points of the compass and all the directions in between to choose from; the inhabitant of Lowestoft cannot, except by swimming or taking a boat,...
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