Britain is about to go Benjamin Britten mad in this the 100th anniversary of his birth. And so it should for he was arguably the greatest of the British classical composers of the second half of the 20th century. Indeed he must be counted among the greatest British composers ever.
But will the hundreds of radio and TV programmes and printed articles actually tell the real story of his life and his strongly held political opinions? Probably not.
Will Britten come over as a posh aloof establishment figure? Or a man who spoke throughout his life with the melodious voice of the common people?
Benjamin Britten was born in in 1913 in the Suffolk fishing port of Lowestoft. He would be associated with that county and its beautiful coast all his life.
He showed musical gifts very early, making his first attempts at composition aged just five. He started piano lessons when he was seven and viola lessons at the age of ten. 1924 saw him studying with Frank Bridge and by the time he was twelve he had written a dozen major works.
Early political education came at Gresham, a public school in Holt Norfolk. Two of his Gresham classmates would become well known – if very different – communists. One was James Klugman who would write the official History of the Communist Party of Great Britain. The other was Donald Maclean, famous as one of the Cambridge spies who penetrated and embarassed British Intelligence. The three young schoolboys would discuss politics and communism avidly.
In 1930 Britten won a Scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London; among his examiners were John Irelandand Ralph Vaughan Williams.
He was soon earning a living from his music penning mostly film scores and music for radio plays. By 1935 he was writing scores for the famous GPO Film Unit. Here he met left-wing poet W H Auden and together they worked on films featuring working people such as Coal Face and the legendary Night Mail.
At this time Britten became part of a group of somewhat idealistic young left-wing intellectuals around the charismatic Auden. The group’s dreams of an ideal world just around the corner were dashed by the Spanish Civil War and the rise of the Nazis in Germany and fascism across Europe.
Britten, sympathetic to the Young Republican Spanish government and those brave young men who went to Spain to fight in the International Brigade performed in benefit concerts raising money and support for the cause.
In 1936 he first met with the tenor Peter Pears. They fell in love. Pears was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his life partner.
In 1937 as war clouds gathered he composed a Pacifist March for the Peace Pledge Union of which he had become an active member. He would remain a dedicated pacifist right up until his death.
Britten wrote Albert Herring for the English Opera Group in 1947, and it was while touring with this opera that he and Pears came up with the idea of mounting a Festival in the small Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh.
Like many other cultural figures of the 1930’s such as Auden, Isherwood and Spender, Britten spent the early part of the Second World War in the USA. He returned in 1942 to write his greatest and best known opera, Peter Grimes.
The powerful libretto for Grimes was written by well known communist writer Montagu Slater. Slater was a journalist turned poet who based the opera story on part of a much longer work by Suffolk poet George Crabbe. Montague Slater and Benjamin Britten changed the story radically. Grimes changed from villain to victim.
The opera shows Grimes as an alienated outsider desperately trying to achieve happiness by catching enough fish to support a wife and family. Tragic disasters befall two young fisher boys Peter Grimes has employed. These lead to Grimes being persecuted and ostracised by local people.
The theme echoes Britten’s own feeling of alienation being a persecuted outsider both for his homosexuality and his progressive political views.
The opera also catches perfectly the atmosphere of the Suffolk coast around Aldeburgh where Britten would live, work and establish his world renowned Aldeburgh Music Festival. Peter Grimes is one of England’s finest operas with wonderful music and a dramatic story. The opera opened at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 to acclaim and full houses.
Other operas followed. Similar themes of the outsider haunt two of Britten’s other great operas Billy Budd and the Turn of the Screw.
In 1961 in a huge tide of cultural resurgence around the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral avowed pacifist Britten was commissioned to write the War Requiem for the official opening. Britten chose the Latin mass and the poignant First World War poems of Wilfred Owen to provide the text for this dramatic and emotional work.
Although Britten’s music is firmly rooted in the coast and countryside of England he was always a great internationalist.
An early friend and inspiration was left-wing American composer Aaron Copeland whose radical politics saw him blacklisted in the McCarthy witch-hunts. Britten also worked with and befriended and championed controversial Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
The British musical establishment which had originally shunned Britten for his sexuality and progressive politics finally offered him their highest honours. In the 1960’s he turned down a knighthood. Just before his death in 1976 he finally accepted a peerage becoming Baron Britten.
This year, on the hundredth anniversary of his birth, as his works are performed. Baron Britten will be pictured as a respectable establishment figure.
Don’t believe it. Listen rather to Ben Britten’s music where his humanity and his progressive ideas still ring out loud and clear.
This article was first published in the Morning Star in 2012