Monday, 26 November 2012

Re-reading Britten's Children

I've been meaning for months to write about John Bridcut's book Britten's Children, quite one of the silliest and most misleading studies of a public figure I can remember.  Prompted by a letter by the author in today's Guardian, I now discover that there's been a bit of a furore in the last few days, in so far as anything in the classical music world qualifies for the description, prompted by an article a few days earlier by Martin Kettle, the paper's chief leader-writer and self-appointed classical music expert.

2013 will be the centenary of Britten's birth, and a plethora of celebrations are planned.  The composer's homosexuality was well-known during his lifetime, but less well-known, although much whispered about, was his attraction to pubescent, and perhaps pre-pubescent boys.  In the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile affair, this is something that induces a queasy feeling, and Kettle goes over some of the old ground in his article.  As the dominant figure in British music during the middle years of the 20th century, Britten gathered around him an army of acolytes, admirers, proteges and hangers-on, all of whom are understandably proud of their association with him and defensive about his reputation.  One of them is the writer John Bridcut.

Why is Britten's Children a silly and misleading book?  Well the clue is in the title.  Flick through it and try and find the references to girls.  Britten's Boys would have been a better title.  I haven't read it for a couple of years, but when I did my overwhelming impression was of a determined attempt to exonerate Britten.  Bridcut interviewed a number of people who were "taken up" by Britten, including the actor David Hemmings, and recorded that nothing untoward had taken place between them.  Hemmings stated that he was well aware, as the original Miles in The Turn of the Screw, how attracted to him Britten was; it was just that Britten never did anything about it.  Bridcut concludes from his failure to find any evidence against Britten that the composer never did anything wicked.

This naive conclusion must be read in the light of the Harry Morris affair.  In 1937 Britten, then 24, took Morris, a chorister aged 13, on holiday to Crantock in Cornwall with his family.  As a present Britten had bought Morris some new pyjamas.  Whilst at Crantock an incident occurred; Morris returned to London and a stand-up row took place between Britten and his elder brother; they were estranged for a time afterwards.  Bridcut writes (p.52) that later in life Morris said he had been alarmed "by what he understood as a sexual approach from Britten in his bedroom.  He said he screamed and hit Britten with a chair.  This brought Beth (Britten's sister) rushing into the room, who, he said, shouted at her brother.  She and Ben left, and Beth locked the door. Harry got dressed, packed his bags, and sat waiting for the morning. Without speaking, Beth took him to the station, and dispatched him to London. When he reached home, he told his mother what had happened, but she told him off and refused to believe his story. He never told his father."

Morris died in 2002.  Bridcut notes (p.46) that "as an old man he had revisited Crantock, and the experience had made him feel ill". Then, astonishingly, Bridcut goes on, "Benjamin evidently delighted in laying on for Harry the same sort of treats as those he had given (another young protege), and in seeing his eyes light up with fresh experiences beyond his reach at home.  This was what motivated him all his life in establishing friendships with boys".

I nearly fell off my chair when I read that last sentence.

With all the participants dead, it is impossible to be specific about what happened between Britten and Morris. But it doesn't seem unreasonable to suppose that this was an incident where Britten's interest in young (and therefore vulnerable) boys crossed the line between thoughts and deeds. It may be the only time Britten did so; it may not be. In either event, Bridcut's general conclusion about Britten's conduct and proclivities is undermined. We know Britten fancied pubescent boys. We don't know whether he ever did anything about it, but Bridcut's conclusion about his motives in "establishing friendships with boys" are surely risible in the light of Morris's experience.

There are further stupidities in Britten's Children, of which perhaps the most egregious are the many pages Bridcut devotes to Britten's relationship with Wulff Scherchen, a young German.  It's true the pair met in the early 30s when Scherchen was 13 and Britten 20; but their relationship did not begin until 1938 when Scherchen was at Cambridge.  The relationship was between two young men, and quite why Bridcut devotes fifty pages to it in a book called Britten's Children is a mystery.

Does it matter whether Britten if was a paedophile?  Well evidently yes if anyone suffered from his attentions; but even if he was it wouldn't make him a bad composer. Wagner isn't a bad composer because he disliked Jews. And to put it the other way round, twenty years of more or less blameless devotion to family life doesn't, sadly, make me a good one either.

In time, Britten's music will stand or fall on its own.  Personally I admire his work more than like it - for all its brilliance, I feel it generally lacks heart.  He is the Saent-Saens of the 20th century.

What of John Bridcut? His reply to Martin Kettle's article is on this morning's Guardian letters page. "There was no suggestion of impropriety", he writes.  Perhaps he should re-read his own book.