A Love Letter to Britten

1959-On-Aldeburgh-Beach-by-Hans-Wild1When I started my degree, one of the first things I was told was to avoid looking at texts through personal sympathy; that is, to not draw conclusions about stories through my own personal connection with the text. Being able to recognise a similarity between myself and Moll Cutpurse, for example, was never going to help me delve into the structure and nuance of The Roaring Girl. And for the most part I agree; I think being able to distance yourself from a text, to let go of personal sympathies, allows you to read critically and analytically; which is precisely what you need when you are doing a degree. But! beyond the constraints of my BA English Literature modules, away from the guiding words of my tutors and the bullet points of presentations, throwing myself into a story, reflecting myself in characters, sympathising with conflict, are amongst the most wonderful things in the world; and, surely, this is where most of us found our love for art and stories in the first place.

This November marks a hundred years since the birth of Benjamin Britten; and although I don’t care much for anniversaries, and find the passing of years to be factual rather than moving, on occasion these important moments prompt me to think, to write, to speak. I have been thinking about this piece, from time to time, for the past six months. It has taken little form in my mind, and I still don’t know quite how to write it, but I know, now, that writing about Britten in the shadow of contemporary issues would do a disservice to my love of his music and his storytelling. You shan’t find an analysis or a critique here; for once, I am allowing myself to write in adoration; a love letter.

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I am not quite sure where or from whom I first heard the name ‘Benjamin Britten’. Perhaps it was my Father, in the kitchen, wearing his white, cotton dressing gown, proffering a CD recording of André Previn conducting the Four Sea Interludes; or maybe it was my Mother, in the car, talking about Thomas Mann and Henry James. Or perhaps it was simple curiosity on my part, as I scanned seasons at the English National Opera and The Turn of the Screw caught my eye. However it happened, I fell fast in love, and was soon weeping over lost innocence and helpless anti-heroes.

And over the years, my adoration growing, I have even had my own moments of connection. I sang A Ceremony of Carols with my school choir, and, sadly, adored it much more than my fellow students. I found myself drinking tea with Benjamin Britten’s niece; a strange coincidence that put us in the same line of work. She told me he could whistle two notes at once and liked to walk in Suffolk; and she almost casually added that Peter Pears was her Godfather. She mentioned the simplest tunes from The Turn of the Screw, and Noye’s Fludde, and told me she liked to sing them with her children.

Most recently – that being only a couple of years ago – I found myself sailing on the North Sea, up the coast from Lowestoft, and as we held our breath, and tried to accustom ourselves to the drift and the rise and fall of the boat, I spotted, on the distant coast, a town. A neat row, a rainbow of colours. I asked the Skipper, almost hopefully, if it was Aldeburgh, and it was.

And all of this has made my heart sing; has pleased me in the way all fans wish to be closer to their idols. But in my heart of hearts, my love for his music has nothing to do with the social connections I have, or these serendipitous moments.

Like many opera lovers I started with Verdi, Mozart, Puccini; learned to love German composers, slowly, and found the gems in France and England. There was a time when Mimi, dying in Rodolfo’s arms, seemed like true tragedy; but, though I don’t mean to diminish the sorrow of ailing bohemians, nothing ever sounded so beautifully of sadness, nothing was ever quite so true, as the Governess fighting for Miles’ life; as Aschenbach’s longing eyes, nor Billy Budd’s voice; Peter Grimes in solitude; nothing so bitter as Ellen Orford raising her hymn book and melting into anonymity. And sadness speaks to me more poignantly than happiness. Happiness is the warm drift of Summer, a sense of certainty and of productivity; it replenishes and pleases me, but it’s true essence feels intangible. Whereas sadness is cold and precise; it has an aim, a cut, and I can feel it. It is satisfying because I know every particular point of its pain. There is nothing intangible about the true, glorious satisfaction of the tears that roll down my face as Peter Grimes drifts out to sea. It is a mouth ulcer caught between my teeth: agony, and the taste of blood, infusing my senses; satisfying every nerve; each aching hollow of my heart.

They say theatre is the most direct way in which a person can convey to another person what it means to be human; and I never understand the truth and honesty of humanity like I do when I am in the presence of Britten’s music; when I am swept along with his storytelling.

And then there is the water. Standing on Trafalgar Square on Friday night, waiting for a bus, trying to stop the tears that still welled in my eyes after an evening spent at ENO with Death in Venice, I felt smothered, overwhelmed by the bustle of the city. Unusual for me; I tend to thrive on the fullness of London, on the busyness of my surroundings. But I had just spent three hours in Venice; could taste the salt air of the Lido; could feel the canal water swell against the buildings. It is no secret that Britten could conjure the elements with a few well chosen notes, with a trill in the right moment, and the lilting of strings, and so perhaps no surprise that a girl who is happiest sailing and swimming, in the water and beside it; on it and above it, should be so moved by Britten’s music. But the effect is still, after seven years, surprisingly poignant.

Which brings me back to my initial point; personal sympathy, prophetic fallacy even, may be useless to me as a student, but is essential to me as an artist and a human being. Although I look at it from the other side, Britten and I share an obsession with innocence; or, more precisely, with the corruption of innocence; with the inevitable tragedy and superlative satisfaction of breaking perfection. Likewise, I see myself reflected in his love of discordance, of rhythms that cut expectation. I know at a deeper level than consciousness, the particular emotion of music that follows feeling more often than rules. I can completely understand a love for stories that are quiet and tragic; stories that tear men’s souls asunder, and talk about love not as romance, but as something beyond explanation, and, at the same time, universally understandable.

I could write for hours and pages about each and every moment of music; I could spend my life contemplating the nuance of these stories, reading their originals, and comparing. I could dedicate my life to the study of Britten’s work. But for now, my adoration raw and exposed, I will step away from the screen, and let the music speak for itself, sinking into the beauty of the sea on Sunday Morning…

4 thoughts on “A Love Letter to Britten”

  1. fridayam says:

    What a lovely piece. I too am a lover of Britten’s music. Aged 14, I read an article in the local paper about Wilfred Owen (a favourite poet of mine) and his connections with my North-West home town, that his poems had been set to music by Britten in the “War Requiem” and that it was to get only its second performance the following week at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I begged my Mum for money for a ticket and was rewarded not only with all that overwhelming music but with the surprise presence of Britten himself, dragged on by Charles Groves at the end, looking rather embarrassed.

    I then bought “Curlew River” and persuaded the teacher who ran our school drama group that the libretto would make a good short play for a schools festival–we won :) I always remember a lovely letter from the librettist, William Plomer, allowing us to use his words without charge as he was so thrilled that they were being performed.

    I could go on. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” borrowed from the British Council library in Paris when I lived there; the wonderfully petulant sparring with my other musical hero, Stravinsky, setting the same texts to spite each other; my first immersion in “Peter Grimes”, a baptism by sea; “Consider my cat Geoffrey”–every time I though I’d discovered a neglected poetic masterpiece, I found Britten had already set it to music!

    Yes, let’s raise a glass and celebrate a true British original.

    1. Harper Eliot says:

      I love a lot of art… but it’s rare to find someone who truly speaks to (for lack of a better term) my soul. He makes me weep with joy, every single time… So glorious. *raises glass*

  2. Brigit Delaney says:

    I agree with you in the area of criticism. It aggravates me to no end when I am told that I must take myself away from the story to truly appreciate its craft and structure. But, that is such a small part of art. Our connections to art create connections to ourselves and to each other. They help us to understand the world from the artist’s perspective and to add that to our own in some way.

    Fascinating post.

    1. Harper Eliot says:

      Oh, I agree with you. And I think to love something, we have to connect to it. In terms of studying literature, for us, I think we were told to make that distinction and to detach because I genuinely have fellow students who would write essays along the lines of “I liked Mrs Dalloway because I once went out to buy flowers and […] so I really connected with it”… which is pretty much nothing when you’re studying critically. You have to have some distance; but I think you can have both. Hopefully you do, otherwise studying any text in depth is difficult. When I don’t connect, I’m not interested.

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