Since his death in 1976, interest in Benjamin Britten’s music has grown greater, perhaps, than when he was alive. There have been excellent new recordings of his works to add to his own authoritative series for Decca; his operas have flourished in productions both traditional and avant-garde; and new biographies, scholarly assessments of the works and doctoral dissertations have appeared with regularity. But if Britten’s stock is high now, it was not always so. In the US edition of Themes and Variations, the fifth of his books with Robert Craft, Stravinsky described the War Requiem (1962) as ‘a Honegger-type cinemascope epic in idiom derived in part from Boulanger-period Stravinsky’, and belittled the music for concerning itself with ‘patterns rather than inventions’.
Like much of Britten’s music of the Sixties, the War Requiem achieved great success with audiences, though fuelled condemnation from the musical movers and shakers. Britten, we now know, was aware of his unfashionable status, and was occasionally depressed by it. Buried away in the Suffolk fishing town of Aldeburgh, he seemed to fight shy of the ‘fashionable’, preferring instead to write mainly for sympathetic colleagues for performances at the annual Aldeburgh Festival. ‘I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships,’ he wrote, in what amounts to his artistic credo, On Receiving the First Aspen Award (1964), and he always trusted his innate musicality to a degree that made him confident of his creative path.
The extraordinary fluency of Britten’s compositional technique was evident early on, encouraged by his adoring yet dominating mother, and honed into shape with lessons from Frank Bridge, and from John Ireland at the Royal College of Music; but it was somehow not quite decent to have such a precocious talent emerge from the provinces, and the consequent charges of cleverness from the critics haunted Britten throughout the politically charged Thirties. During the war-torn Forties, Britten’s close contact with Auden, Isherwood and other left-wing intellectuals then working at the Group and Left Theatres, the GPO Film Unit and the BBC, was undoubtedly the cause of further critical antagonism. Even such loyal friends as the Bridges were not a little suspicious of the composer’s new associates and affiliations.
It seems that the parochialism of English musical criticism rubbed off on the composer himself, for, in later life, he came to believe that many of his major works from the ’30s were flawed, so little were they performed. Only in the years since the composer’s death has the stylistic significance of his 1930s works been fully recognised. The sound-world of Our Hunting Fathers, of the Piano and Violin Concertos, and of the Sinfonia da Requiem fed into his technical armoury and moved him towards the goal of Peter Grimes (1945), as did the masses of incidental music for radio, film and theatre that he composed in the 1930s and ’40s.
If the rehabilitation of the early works has made us reassess our understanding of Britten, the music of his North American years has also been recaptured. The composer started this off in his very last years, by undertaking a full-scale revision of his forgotten 1941 ‘choral operetta’ Paul Bunyan, to a libretto by WH Auden. Britten and Auden withdrew Bunyan after its New York premiere, but it demonstrates Britten’s knowledge of the American musical, country and blues idioms – a far cry from the overtly English Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) that launched his post-US career in England.
Disenchanted with the American dream, Britten returned home at the height of the war, yet his experience abroad proved to be a rite of passage that put him back on course. His stylistic ‘Europeanisation’ through works such as Les Illuminations, the Frank Bridge Variations and the Michelangelo Sonnets, and his ‘Americanisation’ in works such as Paul Bunyan, Canadian Carnival and American Overture, came to an abrupt end with his return in 1942. Having made the decision to leave the US, he immediately embraced his Englishness and the English language, turning to Purcell and folksong arrangements during his last months in New York. A Ceremony of Carols, which was written on the homeward voyage across the U-boat ridden North Atlantic, embodies the authentic English voice of Britten and anticipates the ritual element of his later works, notably the Canticles and the sequence of Church Parables of the Sixties.
Much has been written about Britten’s subsequent trip to the Far East in 1955/56. Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke have examined the purely musical and musico-dramatic relationships between the Balinese gamelan, Japanese imperial court music and the restrained dramatic form of the Noh-play tradition. Britten successfully synthesized elements of each into works such as The Prince of the Pagodas and the Church Parables. Philip Brett has also suggested links between Britten’s attraction to the exotic sonorities of the Orient and his sexual orientation. He was the first to openly discuss Britten’s homosexuality in relation to his output, attempting to decode the exact nature of the powerful moral and emotional dilemma encapsulated in many of Britten’s stage works, from Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Owen Wingrave.
It is clear from so many of Britten’s subsequent works that the tensions and frustrations within the composer were essential to his creative energy: when he flexed against this life of order, Britten’s achievements are of the very highest level. His rare balance of tradition and innovation has allowed him to emerge alongside Janáček and Shostakovich, if not as one of the iconoclasts, then as one of the central figures of 20th-century European music.