The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

composition, I shall attempt to identify the congruencies and antagonisms between text and score, and to assess the relative 'status' of word and music. By so doing I hope to demonstrate that in his operas Britten fused musical and verbal expression into a highly personal language in his search for a 'more interesting idiom', but that ultimately this language, interpreted and communicated principally by his lover, Peter Pears, may have propelled him only so far in his quest for personal integrity and artistic fulfilment.

During the 1930s, guided by his first librettist and 'mentor', W. H. Auden, the young Benjamin Britten had already begun to explore his feelings of disaffection, alienation and oppression in works such as the song-cycles On This Island and Our Hunting Fathers, in which political and sexual tensions subtly intermingled. In 1939, following the example of Auden and Christopher Isherwood, Britten travelled with Pears to America, in search of the personal and creative freedom which, as a Conscientious Objector and homosexual, he probably feared would be denied him in Britain. In the libretto of the 1941 'American' operetta, Paul Bunyan, Auden described this American Eden:

It is a forest full of innocent beasts. There are none who blush at the memory of an ancient folly, none who hide beneath dyed fabrics a malicious heart. 3

Auden urged Britten to embrace his political and sexual beliefs more honestly and openly, his advice culminating in an oft-quoted letter to the composer:

As you know I think you [are] the white hope of music; for this reason I am more critical of you than of anybody else, and I think I know something about the dangers that beset you as a man and as an artist because they are my own.

Goodness and Beauty are the results of a perfect balance between Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention.

Bohemian chaos alone ends in a mad jumble of beautiful scraps; Bourgeois convention alone ends in large unfeeling corpses ...

For middle class Englishmen like you and me, the danger is of course the second. Your attraction to thin-as-a-board juveniles, i.e. to the sexless and innocent, is a symptom of this. And I am certain too that it is your denial and evasion of the attractions and demands of disorder that is responsible for your attacks of ill-health, i.e. sickness is your substitute for the Bohemian.

Wherever you go you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do, e.g. Elizabeth, Peter (Please show this to P to whom all this is also addressed). Up to a certain point this is fine for you, but beware. You see, Benjy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself in this way, i.e. to build yourself a warm nest of love (of course when you get it, you find it a little stifling) by playing the lovable talented little boy.

If you are to develop into your full stature, you will have to think, to suffer, and to make others suffer, in ways which are totally strange to you at present,

____________________
3
David Herbert (ed.), The Operas of Benjamin Britten (London: The Herbert Press, 1989). All quotations from the librettos are from this edition, subsequently referred to as DH.

-2-

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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