Great Britten

Benjamin Britten on Aldeburgh beach in 1959

My first contact with the music of Benjamin Britten was at school. Aged nine, I sang “The Plough Boy”, a song whose tripping lilt was easy to learn, and even today the “flaxen-headed cowboy” who “whistled o’er the lea” remains emblazoned on my memory. Then came a Christmas production of Noye’s Fludde, the children’s opera about Noah and his ark. The whole school was transformed into a costumed menagerie. I sang Mrs Bear.

I was lucky. I had an enlightened music teacher who knew how much and how well Britten had written for young voices. At that time – the mid-1960s – he was Britain’s best-known living composer. His grand operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd lay behind him. Some of his greatest works were still to come. We sang plenty of other music at school but the only pieces I can recall are by Britten.

The significance of that experience, replicated by tens of thousands of schoolchildren in the intervening years, began to dawn when I scanned the events being staged for the centenary of Britten’s birth next year. The list is humongous, embracing community groups as much as “important” institutions. Britten wanted to be useful, to support creativity in all its forms, to write not for posterity but for the here and now.

It’s in that spirit that the year-long celebration is taking shape. It opens on November 22, the day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music, which would have been the composer’s 99th birthday, and runs a full calendar year up to the centenary itself. In addition to countless performances of Britten’s own music, the centenary has generated new work spanning the range of his interests, from specially commissioned music and choreography to educational projects. The Britten Pears Foundation (BPF), which promotes the legacy of the composer and his partner Peter Pears, is investing £6.5m in the anniversary – much of it in digital and educational activities, including an iPad app and animated film exploring his 1946 piece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Isn’t it time we acknowledged that the composer who grew up in middle-class Lowestoft has become one of the “greats” of musical history? Since his death in 1976 aged 63, Britten’s international popularity has steadily risen, just as his influence has extended beyond the confines of classical music.

Britten with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, in Aldeburgh in 1954

He was no ivory tower composer or insular Brit. He travelled and performed extensively. He wrote for amateurs as well as the leading musicians of his day. His music communicates to all ages and nationalities “but in some circles there’s a lingering suspicion that it is difficult”, says Richard Jarman, director of the BPF, “and that’s what we need to dispel.”

While the centenary celebration will be worldwide, with an astonishing array of “firsts” in places as diverse as Moscow and Beijing, it is only right that Aldeburgh should be at the centre. The town on the Suffolk coast was his home for the latter half of his life: the festival he founded there continues to flourish, and his home, the Red House, has become the world’s most comprehensive archive devoted to a single composer.

“But the Britten legacy is about more than his music,” says Jonathan Reekie, chief executive of Aldeburgh Music, which is exploring a variety of Britten-related themes over the next 12 months. “It’s a living and breathing legacy – a vibrant force in today’s musical culture. We want to reflect that. The centenary is not just a firework display with a full-stop at the end. It should be a launchpad for the next generation [of Britten performance and appreciation].”

With that in mind, Aldeburgh is throwing a spotlight on his progressive approach to music education: it has launched a nationwide project to get 75,000 children singing simultaneously on Britten’s 100th birthday next November. Aldeburgh will also focus on his commitment to other art forms and on the links with Suffolk that gave his work a sense of place.

No piece by Britten communicates a greater sense of place than his 1945 opera Peter Grimes, but even he would have been surprised at how literally the Aldeburgh festival intends to explore the opera’s coastal setting. Next June’s open-air production on the beach must be one of the wackier centenary events, and Tim Albery, its director, recognises that there will be “lots of variables to do with the weather and the sound of the sea on any given night. My hope is that Grimes will have a life of its own as a sculpture, an object that gets inhabited by the characters and music Britten dreamt about when he walked on this same beach.”

At the other end of the spectrum, trumpeter Guy Barker and author Rob Ryan are writing a jazz suite based on characters from Britten operas and “what it would be like if their worlds collided”. But aren’t Britten’s characters served well enough already? Barker sees it as perfectly legitimate to create a new work of art inspired by – and paying homage to – someone else’s. “If we took that [purist] attitude, a lot of good stuff would never have got written – My Fair Lady for one,” he says. “Look at Britten himself – he found inspiration in Henry Purcell, Thomas Mann and Herman Melville. I’m following the same principle.”

The choreographer Richard Alston takes much the same line when discussing his dance versions of the composer’s vocal and orchestral works. For the quarter-century after Britten died, Alston says, there was “still a lot of disapproval in the air” – a relic of the composer’s possessiveness, prolonged by guardians of his legacy who sniffed when interpreters dared to extend the boundaries of his work. “It’s a lot healthier now. What Britten created has become more ‘available’, and people love it. There’s a tremendous sense of movement and turbulence in his music that makes it wonderful to dance to.”

While Alston was never part of Britten’s inner circle, he can at least claim to have known the composer and absorbed some of his working principles. But there’s a growing school of academics and interpreters who see it as an advantage to be part of the post-Britten generation, free of the intense loyalties and prejudices that the composer inspired in friends and professional colleagues.

“Among people of his generation and immediately after, a picture built up of a man who was a serial hurter of feelings, who also had an undeniable interest in adolescent boys,” says Paul Kildea, whose new Britten biography will be published early next year. Kildea argues that perceptions of Britten’s homosexuality – and the “disappointment that no one has come out with a shred of evidence” of sexual misdemeanour – have long clouded judgment of his work and personality.

Britten’s personality quirks, Kildea says, are “far more interesting than any mooted sexual failings. He wasn’t a narcissist – despite being incredibly wealthy, he lived simply – but he didn’t like being contradicted, and collaborators quickly picked up on this. It led to bad behaviour and bad decision-making in the creative process” – a reference to the control Britten liked to exert over librettists and stage directors.

‘Noye’s Fludde’ performed at Belfast Zoo with Paul Carey Jones and Doreen Curran

Kildea says too much autobiography has been read into Britten’s operatic characters. For example, he contradicts the widely held view that the composer associated himself with Grimes, the archetypal social misfit: “Britten went out of his way to present himself as a paragon of the establishment.”

Tony Palmer, who filmed the composer at work, agrees that homosexuality “is a footnote in the broader picture” of Britten’s life. His upcoming film biography will focus “on the issue we’ve all skipped around before – his deep philosophical concern about the human condition.”

Palmer believes that Britten’s pacifism – which prompted his departure to the US in 1939 – extended to a “clairvoyance” about war that infuses not only mature statements such as the War Requiem (1961-62) and Owen Wingrave, Britten’s 1970 television opera, but also the prewar Ballad of Heroes (1939). In that light, says Palmer, Owen Wingrave’s tirade against “royal murderers” can be interpreted as Britten’s denunciation of all arbiters of public morality – the law, the church, the body politic. “Britten was putting out things about the world that we would rather not know, and this remains the message he wants us to hear.”

London’s Wigmore Hall starts a Britten series on the composer’s birthday, November 22. Aldeburgh Music’s year-long centenary tribute includes two programmes of Britten’s carols on December 7 and 8.

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