Magazine article The Spectator

Protecting the Flame of Genius

Magazine article The Spectator

Protecting the Flame of Genius

Article excerpt

Protecting the flame of genius LETTERS FROM A LIFE: SELECTED LETTERS OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN, VOLUME III, 1946-51 edited by Donald Mitchell, Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke Faber, £25, pp. 784, ISBN 057122282X £23 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

It's been 13 years since the publication of the first two volumes of this epic edition. Their tardy successor, some 700 pages long, carries us from 1946 to 1951, from the triumph of Peter Grimes through the creation of The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Spring Symphony, and Billy Budd, as well as the row with Glyndebourne and the establishment of the Aldeburgh Festival and English Opera Group.

I imagine that another three equally weighty volumes must be still to come, though at the present rate of production one doubts that anyone who knew Britten personally will live to read them all. But the editors cannot be lightly accused of dilatoriness; their apparatus and annotation are so detailed and comprehensive that they must account for at least three-quarters of the text. The meticulousness of the underlying scholarship is simply dazzling. I spotted only one misprint. Faber is to be congratulated on issuing such a magnificent tome at such a reasonable price (albeit one subsidised, I suspect, by the Britten estate).

The primary focus of interest is Donald Mitchell's introduction, written with a grave and somewhat prolix authority that is almost Jamesian in manner. It makes important cautionary points about the issue of Britten's 'paedophilia', in the light of flames fanned by both Humphrey Carpenter's slapdash biography and the modern hysteria about the phenomenon. Don't assume any simplistic equivalence between art and life, Mitchell urges. Exclusion from family and racial and cultural persecution are themes that run just as powerfully through Britten's work as homoerotic anxiety. Remember the selfsacrifice that was absolutely central to his life; 'it was his creativity to which he wholly subordinated himself and which ultimately defined the trajectory of his life'.

This is well said, and these letters bear eloquent witness to the truth of it. Britten's remarkably steady industry and organisational skills dominate. The composing and performing of music was his consuming priority, not the pursuit of beautiful juveniles. Britten liked playing with boys, yes, because he maintained within himself his own boyishness and drew inspiration from it. Our assumption that this was necessarily sexually corrupt has to be questioned. …

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