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Lucky thirteen

Review of Britten's Children by John Bridcut

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, November 2006

John Bridcut's BBC documentary Britten's Children was highly praised when it was shown in 2004. The film centred on Benjamin Britten's relationships with teenage boys, and dealt with this delicate subject with sensitivity, successfully avoiding any hint of prurience. Bridcut has now expanded the research he undertook for the film into a book, in which he is able to go into greater detail, resulting in one of the most enlightening studies of Britten that has appeared so far.

Humphrey Carpenter, in his 1992 biography, first raised the subject of Britten's serial infatuation with boys. Carpenter interviewed a number of the boys in question, now grown up, all of whom testified that the relationships had been beneficial experiences, and that they had remained chaste, though most of the interviewees were aware that Britten had been in love with them. Britten's homosexuality accords very precisely with Freud's account of boys whose intense fixation on their mother leads to an identification with her, and thus to narcissistic love of "a young man who resembles themselves and whom they may love as their mother loved them". Large areas of Britten's personality seem to have been arrested at the age of thirteen, a time when, to quote the Hardy poem he was to set in Winter Words, "all went well": he was head boy and victor ludorum at his prep school, pouring out reams of music, including his first orchestral works, and his adoration for his mother was at its height. In conversation with Imogen Holst in 1953, as Bridcut relates, Britten admitted that he thought of himself as perpetually thirteen. When he moved into adolescence and began to have crushes on younger schoolboys, they too were often at his age; the pattern recurred throughout his life.

The companion set of interviews in Britten's Children includes one that is especially revealing. Wulff Scherchen (now John Woolford) was one of the most significant figures in Britten's life, but until a few years ago he had been a shadowy figure. Britten met Wulff, the son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, in Siena, when he was twenty and Wulff thirteen. Four years later, in 1938, Britten learned that Wulff was living in Cambridge, and the pair quickly became the closest of friends. Britten's letter of Wulff in Volume Two of Letters from a Life were censored, at Woolford's request, and Carpenter was constrained in his biography, but Woolford has now allowed Bridcut unrestricted publication of the correspondence, and of the poems he wrote to Britten. It is clear that both of them were deeply in love - the tone of their letters conveys an intimacy paralleled only by those between Britten and Pears a few years later - and that for both this was an experience without precedent.

The immediate musical result of this relationship was the song cycle Les Iluminations, the work with which Britten reached full artistic maturity. While he could now express in his music the whole range of his feelings, in his life he was unable fully to come to terms with adult emotions. Quite possibly the main reason for his departure to America with Peter Pears was his inability to copy with the Wulff affair. The Britten-Pears relationship, which began properly during their first few months in Canada and was to last to the end of Britten's life, was a safer haven, one reason being that the older Pears assumed the role of the surrogate mother. Meanwhile, Britten was left free to fall in love with a succession of thirteen-year-old muse figures, many of whom also became for a while surrogate sons - for his paternal instinct was a side of him that continued to develop.

Britten's love of children led him often to use boys' voices; they are one of the most distinctively original sounds in his music. As Bridcut points out, they appear, astonishingly, in almost thirty of his major works, including twelve for the stage. He did not much care for girls' voices. Bridcut has much of interest to say about these pieces, notably Noye's Fludde. The presence of boys in Britten's operas, from Peter Grimes to The Turn of the Screw and from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Death in Venice, shows how much he was led to dramatize his obsession; and Death in Venice at least, in which Aschenbach's infatuation with the boy Tadzio leads eventually to his death, shows that Britten felt some guilt about it. He was innately puritanical, and in the 1930s had long resisted Auden's attempts to bohemianize him. It was courageous of him to be so openly autobiographical in Death in Venice, and even though Aschenbach's idealized love is shown as becoming perverted, as the guardian spirit of Apollo is overcome by the savage sensuality of Dionysus, the music at the very end of the opera, evoking Tadzio's intial innocence, partially redeems him. In almost Britten's last work, the Third String Quartet, he based the finale on the phrase to which, in the opera, Aschenbach sings his first exalted "I love you", and he develops it into a passage of transcendent radiance. In the end guilt is overcome by the ideal of beauty that Britten worshipped all his life.

Paedophilia has become a modern obsession. It may not always imply a sexual relation, but the special nature of Britten's obsession with young male beauty and intelligence is nevertheless easily misunderstood. Many paedophiles were abused as children, and their dangerous desires are motivated by hatred. Britten's were motivated by love, which may have been to a large extent narcissistic - and, as John Bridcut's book reveals, often ended with an abrupt withdrawal of attention when the boy grew up - but which was fundamentally benign. Britten's Children is written with sympathy both for Britten and for the children; it is an important book, which anyone seeking to understand the personality and the music of the greatest English composer of the twentieth century should read.