Thursday, November 5, 2009

Britten’s firecracker crits

A new collection of Benjamin Britten’s diaries are being published today by Faber and Faber. They portray, according to the publisher, an ‘intimate self-portrait of a young boy’s journey to adulthood, and the growth of his creative genius’. More colourfully, The Guardian writes of the diaries that they reveal a young man ‘exposed to a glamorous world of metropolitan homosexuality’. But the real firecrackers in the diaries - if there are any, for today is the 5th of November - seem to come from Britten’s youthful opinions of other composers.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk. When only 11 he began studying with the composer Frank Bridge, and then, aged 16, entered the Royal College of Music, London. During the 1930s, he worked for the GPO Film Unit. One of his compositions for the GPO - the famous Night Mail - brought him into contact with W H Auden who wrote the words. In 1937, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge brought him international acclaim. The same year, he met the singer, Peter Pears, with whom, subsequently, he lived for the rest of his life.

With the onset of war, Britten followed Auden to the US where they composed the operetta Paul Bunyan. In 1942, he returned to the UK, and, together with Pears, toured the country giving recitals. In 1945, Britten completed Peter Grimes, a major opera set in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. It was a huge success, and other operas - such as The Rape of Lucretia and Billy Budd - followed.

Before the war, Britten had bought a house at Snape, near Aldeburgh, and, in 1948, Britten, Piers and Eric Crozier launched the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Twenty years later, the Snape Maltings was converted to a concert hall to host the annual festival. In 1955, Britten went on a world tour, and in 1961 he conducted the first performance of his War Requiem, commissioned for the opening of Coventry Cathedral which had been damaged in the war. Britten was much feted during his life, and received many honours, including being appointed a member of the Order of Merit in 1965. See MusicWeb International, the Britten-Pears Foundation, or Wikipedia for more information.

Extracts from Britten’s diaries (and letters) were edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed and first published in the early 1990s by Faber and Faber in two volumes: Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten (one volume covering the years 1923-1939 and the other 1939-1945). And both were republished together as paperbacks in 1998 - see Faber’s website (here and here) for more details. A third companion volume, covering the years 1946-1951 and containing only letters, was published in 2004.

Today, Faber is publishing a new collection of Britten’s diaries: Journeying Boy - The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten, 1928-1938, selected and edited by John Evans. Britten kept a daily journal for a decade, the publisher says, and ‘this intimate self-portrait of a young boy’s journey to adulthood, and the growth of his creative genius, offers us a fuller understanding of the man and the artist Britten was to become, and of the age in which he lived’.

From his arrival as a boarder at Gresham’s School and his private lessons in London with Frank Bridge, the publisher adds, to his student days at the Royal College of Music and subsequent apprenticeship in London with the GPO Film Unit, the Group Theatre and at the BBC, the book traces the progress of ‘this journeying boy through the turbulent 1930s’. Collaborations with Auden, Isherwood, MacNeice and Grierson helped define Britten as an artist, while international acclaim at home and abroad soon followed. But these were difficult times, Faber adds, not least for Britten, ‘who lost both parents within three years, and began to feel an outsider: a young man struggling with his homosexuality and with being a pacifist at a time of imminent war.’

Evan’s introduction to the first section of the book, concerning Britten’s life in Lowestoft and at Gresham’s, can be read on the Amazon website.

A review in The Guardian, by Charlotte Higgins, says the diaries reveal ‘a lonely but driven schoolboy; a young man exposed to a glamorous world of metropolitan homosexuality; and an artist of stupendous talent, with uncompromising opinions of fellow musicians.’ Some of the most entertaining material in the diaries, Higgins says, stems from Britten’s unguarded opinions of other musicians: Adrian Boult is by turns ‘slow, dull & ignorant’ and ‘suetlike’; Sir Henry Wood is ‘an absolute vandal’; Brahms First Symphony is ‘ugly and pretentious’; of Edward Elgar, he writes ‘How I wish I could like this music’; and he says of Vaughan Williams that he ‘repulses me’.

Here are a couple more snippets from the diary, filtered out of The Guardian’s review:

(Of Isherwood)
‘He is an awful dear & I am terribly tempted to make him into a father confessor.’

(Of Lennox Berkeley who, according to the editor John Evans, was besotted with Britten)
‘He is a dear & I am very, very fond of him; nevertheless, it is a comfort that we can arrange sexual matters at least to my satisfaction.’

(Of a brothel in Paris)
‘ . . . about 20 nude females, fat, hairy, unprepossessing; smelling of vile cheap scent, & walking round the room in couples to a gramophone. It is revolting.’

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