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Benjamin Britten

The Folk Songs

(Collins Classics)

By Lee Sandlin

The Britten Edition is an enormous venture–14 titles so far, and no end in sight. It will evidently preserve on CD every scrap of Benjamin Britten’s music all the way back to his first piano lessons. I didn’t think he was entitled to this kind of enshrinement. But that’s just me being old-fashioned, thinking back fondly to the days of my youth when all the really cool people wrote off Britten as an establishment hack. The line on him then was that he was a cowardly, bourgeois sellout to tonality in an era when the only worthwhile music sounded like a cross between a physics experiment and a traffic jam.

But kids today really dig blandness. The current cutting-edge composers, like John Tavener and Arvo Part, turn out music so decorous and antidissonant it makes Gregorian chant sound vulgar. For them Britten is a hero: the only composer since the Norman invasion who isn’t too distressingly avant-garde. So I’m doing my best to keep up. I’ve plowed through the latest installment of the Britten Edition–a three-CD set called The Folk Songs–and I’ve supplemented it with a clutch of Britten’s own recordings of his major pieces on the London label (unlike most composers, he was a fine conductor of his own music). I don’t know when I’ve ever felt quite so trendy.

The Folk Songs documents a side of Britten’s work that doesn’t get much attention, even from his admirers. But evidently he liked the traditional songs of England and the continent and spent a lot of time playing around with them. He occasionally arranged them into elaborate suites, such as A Ceremony of Carols and A Time There Was, works that evidently are to be found somewhere else in the museum. Here we have the onesies, performed with his original accompaniments, which run from little piano continuos to big-scale arrangements for chorus and orchestra. The set is more than complete: it contains finished and unfinished work, full scores and wastebasket doodles. Britten’s acolytes have even included one score for piano and cello that unfortunately failed to specify what folk song it was supposed to accompany; after “extensive research” (to the point of mania, I’m willing to believe) they gave up and performed it as it stood–plaintively hoping in the liner notes that some folkologist out there can solve their archival torment.

The best I can do is pass on my compliments. I was surprised by The Folk Songs. It’s disconcerting at first that Britten had no interest in historical appropriateness, borrowing all sorts of styles–from vaudeville to the Mahler-esque art song–almost at random. But the results are unvaryingly luminous: every track demonstrates an ineffably delicate touch– the simplest and loveliest chord, the daring flourish that melts effortlessly into place. He could work up an elaborate and fanciful counterpoint for the gentle ballad “The Ash Grove” that suddenly seems to have been there all along, and then he could take a risk and leave the haunting carol “I Wonder As I Wander” entirely unaccompanied–except for a few curious bright spatters of piano melody in between the stanzas that miraculously transform it into a perfect recital piece.

Yet at the end of each disc I had a hard time remembering whether I’d already played it. Britten’s handiwork is so flawless it’s invisible; not only is it hard to tell what it was he did, but it’s sometimes impossible to guess why he thought it was even worth doing–or not doing. Could there have been a more irrelevant challenge for his talent than devising the most unobtrusive possible piano accompaniment for “Greensleeves”? He might as well have been solving crossword puzzles.

Still, it’s not as though he was doing anything better with his time. When I went from this fluff to the major works, I found the exact same problem blown up to cosmic proportions. But I did learn why he has his admirers: the sheer talent on display is off the scale. There may not have been another composer since Mozart with such an absolute mastery of technique. Yet the actual work is so decorous and modest that it’s irrelevant. Piece after piece astonishes you, then bores you, then erases itself from your mind. I was eventually driven to the creepy conviction that Britten was doing it on purpose as a kind of nihilist hubris: if he really was so talented that he could do anything why not take on the impossible and write music that denied his talent existed?

It’s at least a little sinister that almost everything he composed is dependent on a nonmusical source. Medieval miracle plays, Elizabethan devotional sonnets, 18th-century pastoral verse. The more thorny and intransigent the text, the better he could display his gift for creative transparency. In this sense the folk songs are untypical only because they were easy–they were intended to be sung. Elsewhere he set jaw-cracking passages of Wordsworth that are about as far from song lyrics as a stock prospectus, and he made this impossible task look not only effortless but trivial. The music exists only to convey the meanings of the poems–which isn’t composition so much as a kind of literary criticism. While you’re waiting around for the actual music to start, Britten has left the building. Evidently he couldn’t compose at all unless he’d found somebody to hide behind.

He found his grandest camouflage in opera. He spent most of his professional career, from World War II till his death in 1976, setting opera libretti derived from classic literature. He should get points for courage: by the time he started everybody else thought opera was extinct. (Turandot, which premiered in 1926, was the last opera to gain widespread acceptance in the repertoire.) There’s also no denying that his operas are dazzling achievements–as long as the only issue is craftsmanship. The core thematic material is so boldly conceived and so deeply woven into the texture of the music that it seems to shine through every bar like a watermark. But there’s the familiar Britten problem: not a single show-stopping aria, not one gesture at a memorable melody. Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw may make Puccini look like gaudy trash, but every opera lover knows “Nessun dorma” by heart; nobody ever left a Britten opera humming the tunes.

If The Folk Songs proves anything, it’s that he had a thorough and sympathetic understanding of melody. He could not have written such exquisite accompaniments otherwise. So why on earth did he turn his arias into demonstrations of advanced chromatic theory? Maybe they were deliberately intended to discourage his audiences. He seems to have seen his job as the impersonal expression of an underlying design, without a wasted note or a gratuitous flourish. Exuberance, fancy, sheer preposterousness–everything that people enjoy in opera, everything that shows off the personality of the composer–were just too much exposure for him. Just as surely, he must have foreseen what the result of his titanic labors would be. Each of his operas was politely attended, respectfully reviewed, and instantly consigned to oblivion. The opera house was cleared on the spot for another revival of Turandot.

Only once in his mature work could I find him forced out into the open. His admiration for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich led him to write an extended piece of purely instrumental music, virtually the only one in his collected works: the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra. He could easily have gotten away with a bunch of bravura effects (that’s what music for solo cello typically is), but instead he drove himself to do something almost self-revealing. The result is an ominous and difficult piece, bristling with unresolved tension as a mysterious cello line meanders through a harsh orchestral no-man’s-land. If it’s a look into his soul, then behind the barricade of his emotional reserve was a wilderness of barbed wire.

What was he hiding? One answer is given in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography Benjamin Britten. Carpenter suggests that Britten spent his life hiding his homosexuality–but that there was a deeper closet inside that one. His lifelong love affair with singer Peter Pears was a way for him to hide his pedophilia. It must have been a torment to him that even a forbidden relationship was in effect nothing more than a cover of respectability for his real desires. His life was one prolonged act of concealments and thwarted self-revelation.

The fascinating thing about artists in Britten’s league is that no matter what their dark secret may be they always find some way of flirting with full disclosure. Deep down they’re convinced their talent will buy them forgiveness. So even after people began to talk Britten wrote opera after opera about young boys corrupted by weird older men. Riskier still, the boys who took these roles were invariably invited around to Britten’s place for scenes that sound like a classical-music version of Michael Jackson’s home life. But here was that Britten blandness again: as far as Carpenter could discover, nothing ever happened–even those boys who were sophisticated enough to know what Britten was up to said he never once made an overt move. If that’s true, then maybe the point for him wasn’t to preserve the boys’ innocence as much as it was to shore up his own. Maybe by palling around with young boys and not doing anything he was trying to convince himself that he really had nothing to hide.

This half-strangled longing to reveal his secret while simultaneously wishing it away may explain why his music so often plays like an infinite regression of bland disguises. Yet scattered through his work are strange moments when we get a glimpse into the depths. He was fascinated by any poem about nightmares; even in the folk songs, which are mostly very decorous, the bare mention of a dream in the lyrics inevitably calls up music of free-floating yearning–as though signaling the presence of something nameless. Then too some of his large-scale works display a curious inner vagueness: while they stay firmly within the structures of Western harmony, their inspiration seems to be floating out of more esoteric sound worlds, such as Balinese gamelan music and Japanese No drama. His formal conservatism became increasingly unreal: it was as though he were faithfully following ancient traditions that existed only in his own head.

He had no interest in the occult, and his religious feelings were dully Anglican. But his later work had deep currents of the irrational. The eerily glamorous fairy music of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the strange glissandi and tonal shifts of his song cycle Nocturne, the sinister children’s songs of his last opera, Death in Venice–in each case he creates a magical world that’s intoxicatingly potent but imaginary; it hovers just out of reach, poised to vanish like a mirage if anybody gets a glimpse of what’s really going on in there. But it would be a mistake to suppose that he was simply devising a kind of peep show for himself. He may have found this inner landscape so seductive because it could have a strange beauty like nothing on earth.

One of his last works, the “church parable” Curlew River, may be the most forthcoming about what his soul looked like from the inside. It’s characteristically hidden within multiple mazes: an adaptation of a No play about a madwoman encountering the ghost of her dead son, staged as though it were a lost form of Christian ritual drama that has somehow strayed out of one of Britten’s private medieval fantasies. The weird and clangorous score is filled with monastic chants, bird calls, and ghostly cries from beyond. I’ve never heard anything in my life like the final moments when, amid the singing of the monks and the wails of the madwoman, the voice of the child floats up in prayer from his grave. I can’t imagine what Britten thought it meant, though perhaps he glimpsed on the far shore of the mysterious Curlew River the inexplicable possibility of redemption.

If he’d written music like this all the time even the cool tastemakers of my youth would have been in awe of him. It’s hard to believe that the composer of Curlew River could pass most of his time turning out lifeless operas and amiable orchestral arrangements of “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray.” But maybe that’s Britten’s real secret: that his most tedious music was as much an expression of his private world as Curlew River was. We don’t see it only because it’s a vision that doesn’t appeal to us: a utopia of propriety and reserve where he’d be nothing special, where even his worst sins would be regarded as dully ordinary. The sunny blandness of so much of his music may be a reflection of how conventional and benign Britten wanted the world to be–with all dark secrets shrunk to nothing.