Britten’s Centenary

Review of a two day event “Britten’s Centenary”, part of the Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise season.  Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, London, 28th and 29th September 2013.

Britten and Pears

Britten (seated) with Peter Pears

2013 has seen London’s Southbank Centre running a series of concerts and other events inspired by Alex Ross’s 2007 book, The Rest is Noise.  At the centre of the Southbank events are a series of weekend-long festivals of music and discussion.  Ross’s work and these events look at (what could be called for want a better term) classical music in the twentieth century, dominated by continental Europe, particularly France, German and Russia/USSR, and the USA.  In this Britain played a very minor role, and of the previous six weekend events only one (the second, “The rise of nationalism”) has even partly looked at Britain, in this case the influence of folk on early twentieth century composers alongside some consideration of the British moderns in the person of Virginia Woolf.  The first weekend, “Here comes the twentieth century” suggests this process largely bypassed Britain, and three further weekends focused on Paris, Berlin and America.[1]

It is relevant here that the seventh weekend event focused on the life of Benjamin Britten (1913-1916), the first British composer of the twentieth century to gain an international reputation[2].  Events like this can be a little random (often pleasingly so) with sometimes only tangentially related pieces adding context, and this weekend included musical performances (particularly a terrific semi-stage performance of Britten’s 1945 Opera Peter Grimes by the LPO).  Here, I will focus on the elements of the weekend that relate to contemporary British history and suggest how an understanding of Britten and his music can add to our understanding of British society in the period from the 1930s to Britten’s death in 1976.[3]

While, for example, a reasonable account of the USSR might be constructed through the lens of the life and music of Shostakovich, there would be no chance of constructing a history of Britain on such a principle.  Similarly, looking at the general histories of Britain in the period there are few references to classical composition.  Dominic Sandbrook’s now four volume history of Britain from 1956 to 1979 has one clause in one sentence on British composers, noting that Britten, Tippet and Maxwell Davies had gained international reputations by the 1960s.[4]  Sandbrook’s work is dominated by a study of popular attitudes and thus it is telling that there is no place for such high-culture in his work.  Peter Hennessy’s Having it So Good: Britain in the Sixties is quiet on the subject.  David Kynaston’s three volumes covering 1945 to 1959 does include some material, specifically on Britten’s Gloriana and Turn of the Screw, but these are passing comments.[5]

Thus, the disregard for classical music is not the failure of individual historians, it is part of a general acceptance that it had little impact on the way that most people lived their lives.  There may be good reasons for this.  That history has become much more interested in ordinary people’s lives rather than solely focusing on the doings of an elite in politics or culture.  This shift in the way that history is written, the virtues of which few would challenge.  I would argue, however, not only that the focus on popular culture panders to readers’ expectations that history should be popular and thus creating a one sided account, but also misses the chance to explore how ideas move (or don’t move) through society, and how life including its soundscapes was experienced differently not only between individuals but within individual lives.

There are several themes that developed through the event that are of interest to the historian, Britten’s attempt to make his art both public and popular and his political stance as a pacifist.  Other themes developed over the weekend will not be explored here, particularly the more musicological, and Britten’s reliance on the English language, both in his libretti and setting of poems, in shaping his music.  One underdeveloped theme of the weekend that could have stood more analysis was Britten being as out as a gay man could be in the post-war period, and what this says about sexuality (particularly its intersection with class) in this period.

I was surprised that the opening talk was by Shirley Williams, Labour MP and minister in the 1960s and 1970s, founder of the SDP and latterly served as a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  She appears to have gained a reputation as an astute culture critic, something that came to light when she spoke at one of the earlier The Rest is Noise and (reportedly) bested Alex Ross.  In her talk here, Williams suggested that maybe because the British ruling class had been forced to cede some political power to the working class, in other ways they held it back, particularly through the insistence in the operation of the free-market.  This combined with the collapse of the post-first world war euphoria to lead to the nostalgic and bucolic music of Britain’s interwar years typified by Vaughan Williams and Walton.  So while there were multiple revolutions in music, exemplified by Darmstadt in Europe, and by the infusion of black music into the classical in the USA, Britain remained a shunned backwater.  Britten, Williams argues, in this modernism and international reputation, broke Britain out of its musical torpor.

While this is undoubtedly true, to a degree, Williams may overemphasize the break between Vaughan Williams and Britten.  Britten too set folk songs.  Nor was Britten fully in the machine age of urban modernism, indeed the weekend developed the theme that it was exactly the pastoral setting of Suffolk that infused Britten’s music (discussed in a session led by Blake Morrison on Britten and his landscape and by Alexandra Harris in her session on the post-war pastoral in British painting).  As Harris has written about elsewhere, British modernism remained inflected with a romantic accent uncoarsened by the rougher tones of European and American modernism.  This should not be surprising to any student of contemporary British history one of the key themes of which is the tension between the modern and the traditional in twentieth century Britain.

Nonetheless, the machine age could not fail to have some impact on Britten’s music.  Williams suggested that the musical renaissance in Britain was, at least in part, driven by technology, particular BBC radio broadcasts.  A similar point was made in other sessions.  In the “Noise Bite” on the relation between Mahler’s and Britten’s music, Robert Samuels (Open University) made the point that records changed the relationship between composers (although Britten was also an avid reader of scores).  In one of the delightfully random sessions that graced the programme, Paul Gilroy (King’s College London), made a similar point about the music of Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the UK, both in terms of the technology that allowed 100 watts per channel sound systems most notably with Duke Vin’s sound system, the London recording studio of Lee Gopthal (who in 1968 would found Trojan Records).  It thus was not just migration that changed the soundscape of London, but technology.  As Tony Palmer’s 1967 BBC film of the recording of The Burning Fiery Furnace showed, Britten took at least some interest in the technology of music recording, but it was a long way from driving his music.

As with the BBC, support in high places was important for the fostering of arts.  As biographer and historian Peter Parker highlighted in the session “1945: A New Britain”, the hope of a popular policy for the arts in the UK declined when the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) was in 1945 replaced by the Arts Council under its first chair, JM Keynes, putting elite art back onto its pedestal.  Shirley Williams suggested in her talk that there was support in some high places for younger and more innovative artists like Britten and that Frank Pakenham (better known later as Lord Longford) was responsible for a concert for the liberated inmates of Belsen in 1945 by Yehudi Menuhin on violin accompanied by Britten on piano, an event which had a profound impact on Britten as shown in Tony Britten’s (no relation) docudrama Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict (2013) (also shown over the weekend).[6]  I am not convinced that Williams has not combined a number of different things in her memory here.[7]   Pakenham only became deputy Foreign Secretary in the Labour government in 1947, and anyway the concert was on 27th July 1945, the day after Labour came to power and certainly organised before the general election.  According to Carpenter’s biography of Britten (and this in turn is based on Menuhin’s memoires) it was Menuhin who approached Britten to become involved in the concerts.[8]  Menuhin returned for a series of concerts in 1947 in Berlin but without Britten and this was at the instigation of the Office of the Military Governor, United States, and performed concerts in the US and Soviet but not British zones.[9]

Williams also emphasised the continuing importance of Britten’s pacificism, suggesting Britten shared a platform with her mother, the pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain, at the end of the war under the banner of (I think I noted this rightly) “feed the children”.  I have not seen this elsewhere, but I assume it was a response to the tightening of rationing after the end of war in Europe in order to feed Germans in the British Zone of Occupation and was probably a reaction to the sentiment expressed in the Daily Mirror headline of 5th October 1945, “Feed the Brutes?” (although the answer to the question was yes).[10]  Again, I am not convinced about the ordering of events.  The information that I can find in a hurry is sketchy, but according to the Peace Pledge Union’s website, the “feed the children” slogan was part of a 1942 campaign in which Brittain was centrally involved, the Food Relief Campaign, arguing that the allies’ blockade was causing hunger amongst children in occupied France and Belgium, demanding that the Red Cross be allowed to deliver aid.  Britten, on the other hand, organised a “foodless lunch” in 1945 against the decisions of the big three in Potsdam,[11] something which he denounced in strident tones and which was unusual for Britain.[12]

Nonetheless, the issue of Britten’s pacifism is an important one.  Williams has argued against Alex Ross that Britten remained politically engaged, and that his War Requiem (1962) was an overtly pacifist statement, coinciding with the escalation of the US’s involvement in Vietnam.  In another workshop, Sophie Mayer (King’s College London) (a “Noise Bite” about Derek Jarman’s film of Britten’s War Requiem) suggested that with the Requiem Britten merged high culture with the emergent counter-culture which takes this view of the continuing political motivation even further.  It would be interesting to see if a reading of Britten’s archives for his political engagement (and Kildea’s biography might go some way to doing this) supports the Williams/Mayer view the continuing political engagement (a view shared by Tony Britten who on his film suggests that Benjamin Britten’s pacifism remained a political core to his work) against the Ross view of an increasingly politically disengaged Britten.

The weekend did not avoid discussion of the possibility that there was a darker side to Britten.  There have been persistent rumours that Britten took an abusive interest in teenage boys.  This was the subject of a session with psychoanalysts Susie Orbach and (for the prosecution) Brett Kahr, along with (more for the defence) the film maker John Bridcut (whose 2004 BBC documentary Britten’s Children was shown over the weekend, he published a book of the same title in 2006), and Nicholas Riddle who as a teenager had known Britten.  What Bridcut’s film and this session made clear, is that there is only very isolated evidence of Britten acting on any sexual impulse he had towards teenage boys (there is one accusation of a brief inappropriate approach to a boy, Harry Morris, in 1936).  Was Britten sexually attracted to these boys?  It is an interesting point for an historian that the answer can only be that we don’t know, but that there is strong evidence that what drove Britten was a narcissistic obsession with his own 13-year old self, but the result was that Britten’s boys do not appear as victims but people with a fond memory of being cherished.  (This narcissism with his own youth was perhaps also displayed in his sometime practice of recycling elements of his own juvenile compositions into his mature work.)  The most negative side of these relationships is that Britten had little interest in a continuing relationship with these children when adults.  Nicholas Riddle, speaking on the panel, also saw Britten and his long-time partner Peter Pears, as a role model for his gay sexuality at a time in Britain when these were in short supply.

What notably comes out of this is how child-centred much of Britten’s work is.  Not only did he write The Young Person’s Guide for the Orchestra (1946) but other children’s pieces such as the opera Noye’s Fludde (1957).  His operas frequently feature boys, often threatened by the world of adulthood:  John in Peter Grimes (1945), Miles (and Flora) in Turn of the Screw and Tadzio in Death in Venice (1973) all face potential corruption by adults.  Precisely how much we can deduce about Britten from this is a moot point, and perhaps there is a point where, without clear sources, historical knowledge has to stop and should not let speculation fill the spaces.

The children’s music leads to another notable aspect of Britten’s work that emerged from the weekend.  While Britten was not in the mould of a shocking innovator, his music was unmistakably modern.  Again, there is a debate here (on which I am not qualified to judge) with Shirley Williams seeing him as breaking from the insipid romanticism of British composition in the 1930s, while Alex Ross emphasised his (musical) conservatism although conceding that there are elements of serialism in works such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream but overall thinking that any radicalism in the intent of pieces such War Requiem was blunted by Britten’s musical conservatism.  Perhaps there is a middle way, as John Browne pointed out in the opening session of the weekend, Britten (in Peter Grimes) could combine unsettling (at least for the British audience) elements of serialism with some rather Gilbert and Sullivan-esque moment of oompah pah-ish crowd pleasing, showing Britten’s desire to be both a popular and a serious composer.  This attempt was shown in his children’s work, which was community music, and explains Britten (who was not a particularly religious person) writing church music.

The problematic nature of this was brought home to me in another of those serendipitous random moments over the weekend, a showing of Ken Loach’s Spirit of ’45 (2013).  This is a film of purposefully polemical intent, suggesting that the 1945 Labour government’s programme of nationalisation, the NHS, welfare and full employment, while not without its faults (mainly presented as there was no workers’ control in nationalised industries) has been dismantled since 1979 and is will not be resurrected by our current Labour Party.  Although this is a polemic with which I fully agree, this is not a film I warm to.  In part this is because at least the majority (maybe a very large majority) of the mainly working-class talking heads that give the film its political narrative are not simply the health workers, ex-car workers, pensioners activists and writers they are strap lined as being, but members and ex-members of revolutionary groups on the left – the WRP, Socialist Party, SWP/Conterfire and so on.  These people have the right to a voice (don’t get me wrong, I am such a person myself) but it is not what it purports to be, it is the imposition of a different voice on the working class which is not allowed to speak for itself.

There is, however, a much more significant set of flaws to the film.  The 1945 Labour government is shown as being basically right, although perhaps not going far enough.  It is not my intent here to argue about what socialism is (programme bashing is definitely not the purpose of this website), it is a question of precise and accurate history (which is the purpose of this website).  There is no mention that the 1945 Labour government engineered the creation of NATO and was instrumental in creating the Atlantic alliance and thus one of the hands clapping in the Cold War.  No mention is made of the huge effort to maintain Britain as a world power in financial and military terms, which eventually meant it sheltering under the wing of wing of the USA.  And no mention that the wartime Order 1305 banning strikes was continued by the Labour government until 1951.

Indeed, there is more than a slight subtext that the Labour government of 1945 was carried along on a wave of national unity that included nearly everyone save a few grasping senior doctors and pit-owners.  This national unity thesis has a long lineage, going back at least to the social-democratic social-historian Richard Titmuss’s who from the 1950s argued that the origins of the post-war state lay in part in the solidarity of wartime Britain.  This has been subject to revision and counter-revision ever since, but for sure Britain after 1945 remained divided by class, region and gender to note but the most obvious.  This class conflict was expressed in the Labour Party in the conflict between the Bevanites and Herbert Morrison’s consolidators.  It was expressed electorally by the polarisation of the vote, to some degree on class lines, with Labour winning 48.8% and the Conservatives 48% of the vote in 1951, which vagaries of the British electoral system saw led to Labour losing office, which they then did not regain for 13 years.  It is, I would argue, at least one of the necessary building blocks for understanding why Labour never had a governing programme like their one of 1945 again, not in 1964, not in 1974 and certainly not in 1997.

But the point here is not about Labour’s programme.  It is about the kind of society in which Britten was writing.  It is easy to portray, as Ross does, Britten as moving away from any form of radical politics after 1945, becoming cosy in the protective community that he formed round himself in Aldeburgh divorced from a harsher world.  As outlined above, this can and has been challenged although I haven’t seen the evidence that convinces me either way, and would like to see a serious exploration of Britten’s politics.  But the interesting question that this raises for me is that if (and it is an if) Britten was genuinely trying to create a popular art, an art that was part of a society less divided by fault lines such as class, then the kind of society that was emerging by 1951 was moving away from one where that would be possible, one with hardened lines of class and cultural difference.

As Jude Kelly (Artistic Director, Southbank) said introducing the first keynote session of the conference, our understanding of culture in the twentieth century is informed by art (think Picasso), one could add architecture (think Richard Rogers), but not classical music.  I would suggest that there is a reason for, classical music has remained the most clearly class bound of the areas of high culture, not least since there is a popular form of music that is an alternative to it.  If Britten sought to break that wall down, he failed, and could only fail since opera and string quartets are not the key to transforming society.

[1] Some of these are available, mainly as sound files, form the festival’s website,

[2], in time there should be sound files for some of the event here.

[3] Note: there were many parallel sessions so I did not attend every session, but I will attempt to fill in some of the gaps when the sound files are posted on the Rest is Noise website.

[4] Sandbrook, The Sixties, 396.

[5] David Kynaston, Family Britain, 308-9, 408

[6] The film is being released on DVD in October and for screenings see

[7] The next time I am in a library, I will look further into this.

[8] Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (1992), 226.

[9] Tina Frühauf, “Five Days in Berlin: The ‘Menuhin Affair’ of 1947 and the Politics of Jewish Post-Holocaust Identity”, Musical Quarterly (Spring 2013) 96 (1), pp20-22.

[10] Ben Shepherd, The Long Road Home (2011), 126.

[12]  There are details of this in Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, but I don’t have a copy to hand for a full reference

One response to “Britten’s Centenary

  1. Pingback: Review of The Rest is Noise, Britten’s Centenary, Southbank Centre, 28th and 29th September 20123 | British Contemporary History

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