Can We Love Britten’s Music While We Know About His Infatuation With Underage Boys?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 9:00 AM

Britten’s Boys

A new biography explores the music of Benjamin Britten, but does it give short shrift to the composer’s infatuation with the underage?

Benjamin Britten

Illustration by Nate Powell

While clicking through Britten 100, the website dedicated to the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten, you might begin to suspect that the composer is not exactly in danger of being forgotten this year. As of this writing, the site lists more than 2,000 performances or events related to Britten’s music on its worldwide calendar. And so it’s hard to think of a recent composer less in need of classical music’s usual big reclamation projects of top geniuses at every century-birthday.

Britten is popular! Wes Anderson credits Britten’s “Noye’s Fludde” for influencing his Moonrise Kingdom, which features the children’s opera as both a plot point and part of its soundtrack. (Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” also appears in the film and inspired Alexandre Desplat’s closing-credits composition.) “The Britten music had a huge effect on the whole movie,” Anderson said at Cannes. “It is the color of the movie, in a way.”

And Britten is also thriving in the concert hall. While Britten himself was nervous about his reputation among musical elites in the experimentally extreme midcentury, his own blend of tonal writing outfitted with original, harmony-stretching orchestral effects can make the composer’s works feel both classic and forward-looking, even today. Britten’s operas do well in his home country, and he’s one of the few 20th-century composers to have made any inroads at all in conservative American opera circles. The endurance of Britten’s popularity into the new century was helped along by the entire chapter Alex Ross devoted to him in his influential, popular The Rest Is Noise—a book whose chapter headings otherwise tend to belong to whole decades (or continents) of musical activity.

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So if some felt deficit of Britten-related appreciation is not the issue his centenary needs to address, what is there to talk about? The question is approached rather directly, and with some noted pleading, in the preface to Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, the appreciative new biography by poet and critic Neil Powell. On the very first page, the author steps out a plan for the Britten Centenary. First, be it resolved that “Britten was the greatest of English composers—rivalled only by Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar.” Next up, that “he was specifically a man of the East Anglian coast.” The initial argument is unavoidably subjective but not terribly hard to defend; I’ll grant him the second, though who cares. It feels almost like a lulling proposition before Powell’s bold third thesis hits: namely, that Britten’s “fondness for adolescent boys and his devotion to his partner, Peter Pears, represent distinct and complementary aspects of his sexual nature; his conduct in both cases was exemplary and is therefore the occasion for neither prurience nor evasiveness.”

Oh yes, the boys. Here at last you have an argument-starter fit for a year full of Britten. The composer’s serial, well-documented infatuation with underage lads was discussed most memorably in John Bridcut’s 2004 BBC documentary (and subsequent book) Britten’s Children. As Britten’s 100th birthday drew near late last year, and in the shadow of the Jimmy Savile child-abuse scandal in the U.K., Guardian columnist Martin Kettle wrote an item headlined “Why We Must Talk About Britten’s Boys” and linked to blogger Bob Shingleton’s observation that “there are many – including the parent who is writing this - who would categorize an adult male sharing a bed with an unrelated adolescent boy as most definitely ‘untoward’, if not downright predatory.”

Is it necessarily prurient to say so? Powell seems to suggest as much in his preface, and the rest of his biography does its best to enforce this perspective throughout.

While citing the fact that Bridcut’s documentary turned up no explicit sexual activity with the youngsters who reliably turned up in the composer’s retinue, Powell seems eager to close the case there, even if several of Britten’s erstwhile “children” copped to an awareness of Britten’s attractions at the time (as well as some boundary-skating bed-sharing and head-kissing).

But devotees of earlier reporting on Britten know that this will not quite do. Take the story of the 13-year-old Harry Morris, who, according to Bridcut and to Ross’ telling in Noise, may have needed to throw a chair across the room while screaming to get his point across to a 23-year-old Britten. Here’s how Powell dances around that same scene, sans the details of the yelling and furniture-throwing, even while referencing Bridcut’s book to make the case that there must have been very little to see here:

“What went wrong? Harry later told his wife and son that ‘he had been alarmed by what he understood as a sexual approach from Britten in his bedroom.’ Those are ... Bridcut’s words, of which the careful and crucial ones are ‘what he understood as’. It seems unlikely that the scrupulous Britten would have made ‘a sexual approach’ and almost inconceivable that he would have done so while sharing a small holiday bungalow with, among others, Robert and Beth [Britten’s brother and sister]; moreover, such behavior would have run directly counter to the basis of his relationships with boys, which were founded on providing and sharing essentially innocent pleasures.”

This account may not be prurient, but it does seem like the work of a defense lawyer, not a biographer. Benjamin Britten didn’t make a sexual advance to a boy because Benjamin Britten wasn’t the type to make sexual advances to boys, don’t you know.