Music / Biography
Boy as Muse:
Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

 by M.S.

AT FIRST, I THOUGHT I had no business reviewing a biography of a modern classical composer -- my competence in music being limited to early Stones, early Beatles, and early Michael Jackson. But I found so much so familiar to me reading this life of Lord Benjamin Britten (Benjamin Britten, A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992) that I pressed ahead anyway. Britten's life was quietly scandalous. His life-long relationship with tenor Peter Pears, a few years older than himself, was openly conducted. And although the couple were quite dedicated to each other, Britten's primary sexual interests lay in teenage boys.

Benjamin Britten: A Biography, by Humphrey CarpenterI don't know Carpenter's motivation for writing this biography, or if he intended to make the statement that I believe he ended up making, but it is my opinion that the resulting work is an objective portrayal of life as a pederast in 20th century Western culture. As such, it is a tragedy.

The subject of sex at English public schools among students and between students and masters seems to always come up when one talks about homosexuality among the British. Carpenter explores to the point of embarrassment the theory that Britten was made homosexual by experiences in his school. One would think that a text published in the 1990s would be beyond all that, but it seems either Carpenter, or his readers, must beat this theory to death before considering more complex causes for such behavior. Carpenter concedes sexual behavior may result from more complex motivation, but doesn't do so before a series of wild speculations and crude investigations into the character of a long dead former headmaster of Britten's primary school. But we can thank Carpenter for bringing us a rather concise, objective view of Britten's personal life and how it related to his work.

Britten was recognized as a gifted composer all through his life. He won the one and only scholarship offered by the Royal College of Music in 1930, at 17. Soon, Britten fell into the regular habit, which he maintained all his life, of choosing young male musicians or performers to stay at his home and work with him. He seemed to be selective and monogamous in a way, falling in love with one boy at a time, keeping a dose friendship with him until he reached his late teens, and then drifting to another younger partner. (Numerous letters from Britten to these boys survive.) Most all of Britten's works have pivotal roles for young boy singers, and Britten would choose the boy for such a role, and begin rigorous training with him, which would end with long stays at his home. Britten would find excuses for a level of intimacy beyond what our culture would consider appropriate (sharing a bed, kissing, nude swimming) and Carpenter handles this quite maturely; recognizing Britten as a pederast, but not assuming that he acted out his desires.

Carpenter and others have interviewed many of the boys involved with Britten, and they consistently claim they were aware Britten's attraction to them had a sexual component, yet they just as consistently deny they followed through on his suggestions of intimacy. One can believe these denials as one wishes. But all these boys have nothing but warm, positive memories of their relationship with the composer. Britten repeatedly took over the role of father-figure to boys of musical taste, limited means, and sometimes dysfunctional families. I think one gets the picture. Whether or not we believe all the boys' statements that they avoided sexual involvement with him, it is reasonable to believe that Britten had limited sexual fulfillment via these relationships. It also seems clear that he had difficulty dealing with his own feelings of guilt and insecurity. This frustration came out in his work.

Britten was surprisingly consistent and open in all his operas. The common theme running through them is innocence lost. The major role would be sung by Peter Pears, and a boy soprano would find a dismal fate in a cruel world. Britten operatic works include: Peter Grimes, about a fisherman who has three young apprentices die in his service; an adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, about a young sailor who is falsely accused and executed; The Turn of the Screw, in which a new nanny suspects a young boy is being seduced by a ghost (or the gardener); and an adapation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, in which a writer become infatuated with a boy he sees while on vacation, and eventually dies of cholera instead of fleeing the infected city.

Britten's fascination with his young stars prompted the most scandalous rumors within his opera troupe. Some observers became almost hysterical with Britten's insistence of personal, private tutoring of the young boys, and felt the subject matter of the works was consistently inappropriate for the young singers. Most parents, however, seemed quite pleased with his attentions to their sons. Whether this was a result of Britten's natural charm, his selection process, or his fame in music circles, I cannot tell. Britten's behavior, and the blind eye turned to it from a society only a few decades distant from our own, is quite revealing of the changes going on in contemporary Western culture. Britten's style, after all, is consistent with that of a prominent, popular, contemporary musician with whom we are all familiar.

Britten and Pears became gay celebrities after Britten's death in 1976 at age 63. Their long, open relationship did not preclude Britten's peerage. Upon Britten's death, the Queen made a de facto recognition of the homosexual union by sending a personal message of condolence to Pears. The general understanding that Britten was a discreet boy-lover was not made into an issue. What a difference 20 years makes.

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pgs. 50 - 53, Jan/Feb. 1993.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2008

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