Britten’s Children

I’ve recently been working my way through a pile of books I bought over the years but haven’t yet got around to reading. The latest is Britten’s Children by John Bridcut which I think I bought shortly after it was published in 2006 but have only just finished. I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book, but with this year being the centenary of the composer Benjamin Britten’s birth I felt I shouldn’t make any more subconscious excuses.

This book is quite a scholarly work (completely with musicological references, etc)  that describes Britten’s life in music alongside the story of the numerous friendships with adolescent  boys which were a constant theme in his life. I won’t go through a list of these because the wikipedia page about this book contains such an inventory, but it is worth noting that most of these friendships involved good-looking boys around 13/14 and that there certainly was at least an aesthetic element to Britten’s interest; the man himself certainly didn’t attempt to disguise this physical aspect of the attraction. However, it is quite clear from the often passionate letters exchanged between himself and the various boys concerned that these relationships were not exploitative, but based on a strong mutual affection.

In fact only one of the boys Britten befriended, Harry Morris, ever claimed that Britten had made sexual advances to him. Britten often invited his young friends to come with him on holiday, which they did with full parental permission. That in itself seems strange in the light of the reaction the mere suspicion of paedophilia is likely to  provoke nowadays. One would have thought it was much worse in Britten’s day when homosexual behaviour between adults was illegal, never mind between adults and young boys. As it happens, though, Britten was never even investigated for any form of indecent behaviour. His friendship with Harry Morris ended after the abrupt termination of a trip to Cornwall during which, Morris later claimed, Britten made some sort of approach to him. However, there are quite a few inconsistencies in Morris’ telling of the story, so there is considerable doubt over exactly what happened there. Anyway, I’ll resist the temptation to discuss whether the composer may have made overtures to this particular young man, and move on.

Reading the many excerpts from letters and transcriptions of interviews held with a number of the protagonists in later life, I think that Britten’s motivations were fundamentally benign. He just liked to be surrounded by beautiful youths, an attitude likely to be demonized today but actually not so much in the past. Many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, are addressed to a “fair youth” from an older man. They talk of male beauty,  passionate mutual attraction in such a way that it is easy to assume that they describe  sexual desire. They may do that, of course, but I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the case; there are many kinds of love, including those that do not need to be physically consummated.

This brings me to the origin of the phrase “the love that dare not speak its name” which most take to refer to homosexual desire. In fact it’s not as simple as that. The phrase was coined by Oscar Wilde in the following excerpt taken from the transcript of his criminal trial for gross indecency in 1895:

‘The love that dare not speak its name’, in this century, is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Johnathan. Such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you may find in the sonnets of Michelangelo or Shakespeare. It is, in this century, misunderstood. So much misunderstood that it may be described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful. It is fine. It is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual. And it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts someone in the pillory for it.

Anyway, as you can imagine if you haven’t read the book, this is very delicate ground, but John Bridcut is both tactful and direct in the way he presents it. Britten was a complicated man who could be very difficult, so this is no hagiography, but neither does it pander to prurience. He must have done a good job because even the reviewer in the Daily Telegraph wrote:

Nowadays a known homosexual who sought out the company and affection of small boys would probably end up on a police register or behind bars. In treating Britten’s fondness for the young of his own sex as something more than lipsmacking paedophilia, this book does him a service both as a man and an artist.

In many ways the most interesting things to emerge from the book for me (as a non-expert on Britten) are things that are quite separate from the central theme. I hadn’t realized, for example, that Britten was a fine sportsman: he was an accomplished cricketer, swimmer and tennis player and was in fact Victor Ludorum at his school. That contrasts with the somewhat bookish persona I’ve always associated with him based on photographs. I was also fascinated to read that he composed music sitting at a desk. Only when he’d finished a piece (or at least a substantial fraction thereof) would he play it through on the piano. That may be common practice among composers, actually. I don’t know.

The other strand that’s woven into this story is Britten’s relationship with his life partner, Peter Pears. I hadn’t realized that Pears and Britten were actually pretty close friends for a couple of years before their relationship became a physical one. Pears apparently wasn’t always comfortable with Britten’s younger house guests – and their relationship had its ups and downs for other reasons too – but they stayed together until Britten died in 1976. I think the bond between them was all the stronger because it incorporated a mutual love of music. Earlier in his life, Britten was on the periphery of a Bohemian clique that included Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, but both he and Pears decided that wasn’t for them; they settled down to a life of  fogeyish conventionality, a marriage in all but name. When Britten passed away, Her Majesty the Queen sent Peter Pears a telegram expressing her condolences. I look forward to the, hopefully near, future when all same-sex relationships are afforded the same level of respect.

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12 Responses to “Britten’s Children”

  1. I still have a very basic yet very precious trumpet mute in my bookcase. Benjamin Britten gave it to me on 11 July 1966 because I needed it to play the trumpet part on his Psalm 150 for boys’ choir. Here’s a bit: http://www.myspace.com/556085156/music/songs/psalm-150-for-voices-orchestra-op-67-48157471

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Surely the age issue is more about emotional than physical development, and the concomitant risk of exploitation by somebody much older? I’d be as worried to leave a 14-year-old son of mine with a promiscuous male homosexual as I would a 14-year-old daughter with a man known for heterosexual promiscuity.

    In the 1980s I knew an elderly man who had been at Gresham’s school with BB. He said, hardly surprisingly, that he excelled at music.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree that it’s the emotional manipulation of a younger person within such a relationship that is the biggest danger; it’s a betrayal of trust.

      I just remembered hearing a story on the radio about a scandal at a music school where a teacher had abused young students. That’s created a backlash so that teachers may be allowed neither to be alone with pupils nor to touch them. This latter part is difficult because some instruments require physical contact to correct posture etc.

      So much is lost when someone in a position of trust betrays it.

      However, getting back to Britten, the actor David Hemmings was a favourite when he was young. Though totally straight he flirted outrageously with Britten and loved the attention he got as a result. It’s by no means obvious in that relationship who was exploiting who!

  3. “whether the composer may have made overtures”

    Pun intended?

  4. “it is worth noting that most of these friendships involved good-looking boys around 13/14 and than there certainly was at least an aesthetic element to Britten’s interest; the man himself certainly didn’t attempt to disguise this aspect of the attraction. However, it is quite clear from the often passionate letters exchanged between himself and the various boys concerned that these relationships were not exploitative, but based on a strong mutual affection.”

    Does this differ at all from the allegations raised against Michael Jackson?

    • telescoper Says:

      I realize that there was an error in the piece you quoted, which I have now fixed.

      I’m not sure exactly what was alleged about Michael Jackson – but I think they involved younger persons.
      However, Britten did indulge in nude swimming in the sea with his favourites and also, quite surprisingly, David Hemmings admitted that he shared a bed with Britten; he said that was because he was frightened and that there was no sexual contact…

      • Well, two nude men in a bed is not always what one thinks it might be; ask Angie Bowie: http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/bowie.asp

        Many people have reported that (single-sex) nude swimming was not uncommon at YMCAs in the States in the 1950s, but that would be unthinkable today.

        Of course, in many parts of the world (mixed) nude swimming is common and doesn’t have a sexual component to it at all.

  5. “That in itself seems strange in the light of the reaction the mere suspicion of paedophilia is likely to provoke nowadays. One would have thought it was much worse in Britten’s day when homosexual behaviour between adults was illegal, never mind between adults and young boys.”

    This might be because homosexuality was so badly thought of that it was inconceivable that someone of Britten’s stature could stoop that low, so to speak. There are other cases of this. For example, Lewis Carroll photographed young girls in the nude; one can’t imagine an Oxford don doing this openly without criticism today. He famously remarked “I am fond of children, except boys”.

    Another thing which seems unbelievable in retrospect was that physicians (almost always male) used to treat women for hysteria (check out the Greek root of that word) by massaging them to orgasm, often with mechanical devices. It was only when such devices came to be offered for sale in catalogues that it became obvious what they were often used for (the official purpose was another, of course) and it took a while before they were openly sold again (depending on where, sometimes with other official uses).

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Sad news from the British classical music scene – Colin Davis has died; see

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22148334


  7. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.
    For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
    And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”
    (Romans 1:24-27 AV)
    a message from our Creator!

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