Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea
A new biography of the British composer not only claims that he died of syphilis but also documents how his controlling singlemindedness sometimes undermined the music he made
Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century
F irst things first. And in the case of Paul Kildea’s Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century , what came first, even before the book went on sale, was Kildea’s claim that the cause of the composer’s death, in December 1976, aged 63, was actually syphilis. Kildea contends that Herbert Ross, the heart surgeon who operated on Britten in 1973, chose to draw a veil over the matter, although he did later confide in a colleague about his discovery in the operating theatre that “the aorta was riddled with tertiary syphilis”.
Had this become public, it would have created a scandal and probably have deprived Britten of the life peerage bestowed on him in July 1976, when he became the first composer to receive such an honour. Even today, figures from the medical establishment have been quick to throw doubt on the new suggestion, and medical records have been trawled through to refute Kildea’s case, which hypothesises that Britten picked up the disease from his life partner and muse, the tenor Peter Pears. Conspiracy theorists, no doubt, will relish pointing out that there may well be omissions or falsifications in the records, though now that the alleged cat is out of the alleged bag, it seems inevitable that suspicions will remain.
If the claim is indeed true, it would add another name to the long list of people to have had their creativity spiked by the disease. The American baritone Thomas Hampson has independently thrown out a question about three syphilitic song composers, Schubert and Schumann and Wolf: “Did the illness release in them a heightened sensibility for lyric form, emotional surges, and sensitivity that empowered them to achieve such masterly settings?”
Britten, born in Lowestoft in 1913, seems never to have spiritually left his native Suffolk. He studied and lived in London, and escaped the start of the second World War on the far side of the Atlantic – the physical consummation of his relationship with Pears took place in Grand Rapids. He loved and hated the US, but it brought clarity. “I’m gradually realising that I’m English – & as a composer I suppose I feel I want more definite roots than other people.” He returned to England, and before he was 30 he had rooted himelf just 50km from his place of birth. Pears continued to thrive on city life and touring.
Peter Grimes , which was premiered at Covent Garden xin 1945 and became the first English opera to enter the international repertoire, was based on part of the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe’s The Borough . It was in Aldeburgh in 1948 that he founded a festival which thrives to this day.
Britten was fortunate to have had a teacher, Frank Bridge, who, unusually in the England of the 1920s, felt a real affinity with modernist musical developments in Europe. Britten actually expressed a wish to study with Alban Berg, but the authorities at the Royal College of Music scuttled that plan.
Like many a later composer, Britten cut his teeth writing film music, most famously on Night Mail , with words by WH Auden, for the fledgling GPO Film Unit. Auden’s influence was broad, and Christopher Isherwood described himself and Auden as being “as bossy as a pair of self- assured young psychiatrists” in relation to Britten’s sexuality. The composer’s diary report of a visit to a Turkish bath popular with gay men in London suggests they must have had quite a task. “Very pleasant sensations – completely sensuous, but very healthy. It is extraordinary to find one’s resistance to anything gradually weakening.”
Britten was intimidated by Auden’s brilliance, and the inevitable rift was never healed.
His life seems to have had many rifts. With a succession of individuals adopted or employed as collaborators and helpers wrung for all they had to yield, then discarded. Kildea mostly takes the composer’s side, painting black-and-white pictures of other composers (Britten liked to dismiss Walton and Vaughan Williams), conductors (Boult, Beecham and Sargent were among the damned), and critics in general.
Kildea appears to be on the composer’s side, too, concerning his infatuations with young boys, even to the point of dismissing the evidence of Harry Morris, who cut short a holiday in Cornwall with Britten at the age of 12 and reported inappropriate behaviour to his disbelieving mother. The succession of boys he mooned over caused scandal and, with his very public wartime pacifism, taints memory of him in Aldeburgh to this day.
The disastrous premiere of the 1953 coronation opera, Gloriana , the direct successor to Grimes (none of the intervening operas uses a full symphony orchestra), prompts Kildea into a fascinating analysis of the horrific homophobia of the time. The composer, librettist, director, conductor and choreographer working on an opera about Elizabeth I created for Elizabeth II were all gay.
But he doesn’t really probe the extraordinary fact that Britten set out to write a national opera (to be an English equivalent of, say, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride ), and did so only on the condition that it form part of Queen Elizabeth ’s official coronation celebrations. And he glides over the way, within months, that the composer’s stipulation was met, by his friend Lord Harewood contacting a cousin who was the queen’s private secretary. Britten may have been an outsider who wrote works sympathetic to individuals at odds with society, but in later life he was also extraordinarily well connected. And even Harewood was dispensed with in due course.
Among English composers, only Elgar (another bete noire) was as handsomely documented as a composer and performer by a record company as Britten was by Decca. The evidence is there to demonstrate that his piano playing (although he didn’t practise) and his conducting (although it was anything but orthodox) were often as visionary as the best of his music. One of his composing rivals that he didn’t dismiss, Michael Tippett, described him as “the most purely musical person I have ever met and I have ever known”.
This new biography may be unbalanced by the way Kildea downplays the nature and consequences of Britten’s selfish behaviour and judgments. But, especially in relation to the composer’s working relationships with librettists, he also documents how a controlling singlemindedness sometimes undermined the music.
The book is full enough of often tantalising minutiae that few readers will put it down without a sense of discovery.
Michael Dervan is Music Critic of The Irish Times and has also written and presented radio programmes for RTÉ and BBC.