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Benjamin Britten, revisited

When I was charged with the task of updating the article on Benjamin Britten in Grove Music Online, I thought it would be a relatively simple matter. As Britten’s centenary year approached, it seemed an opportune moment, and the article was one I admired. But I soon found myself in an authorial quandary. The article was first published (in print form) in 1995, and was written by a revered scholar, Philip Brett, who died in 2002 at the age of 64. Brett was one of the first critics to publicly address the issue of Britten’s homosexuality and its relationship to his music. This was in 1977, only a year after Britten’s death, and Brett went on to become a leading figure in sexuality studies in music. (The American Musicology Society’s award for scholarship on LGBT themes is named after him.) The 1995 Grove article was one of his later pieces of writing, and since he never completed a planned book on Britten, it was the culmination of many years of work on the composer. It seemed odd to tinker with Brett’s words, given that the article was a monument to Brett’s scholarship as well as Britten.

But revisiting Brett’s article was an education in how much Britten scholarship and performance has changed since 1995, or even since I began working on Britten a few years later. The bibliography has nearly doubled, and scholarly perspectives have multiplied, losing much of the defensive tone that still persisted 10 or 15 years ago. Something has shifted to render Britten’s place much more secure. The broad rethinking of modernism that has taken place since the mid-1990s leaves Britten—with his commitment to communication and accessibility—a less marginal figure. Interest in Britten has grown outside English-speaking countries, and it continues to spread. There are now Britten biographies in French, German and Italian. This year, Beijing is hosting a celebration of Britten in his centenary week, which will see many first performances in China, as well as the release of a new biography. Once-marginalized works are increasingly being performed—not so much, I think, because people find these works more successful than they once did, but because their very failures are interesting, and there’s less of a sense that some of Britten’s works need to be sequestered for fear of tarnishing his reputation.

Publicity photograph of British composer Benjamin Britten
Publicity photograph of British composer Benjamin Britten, 1968. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In my updated version of the Grove entry, perhaps the most substantial changes are to the slightly apologetic discussions of The Rape of Lucretia, Paul Bunyan, and Gloriana. Reflecting what I think are larger shifts in Britten scholarship, I occasionally replaced Brett’s personal and psychological explanations with historical and practical ones. On the founding of Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, for instance, Brett writes, “It was an inspired response to Britten’s vulnerability, personally as well as musically, to the kind of hostility he had experienced early in his operatic ventures.” Drawing in part on recent scholarship by Paul Kildea, I cut this and wrote, “It was in many ways a practical move, providing a base for the English Opera Group after its association with Glyndebourne broke down, and taking advantage of the Arts Council’s interest in funding cultural projects outside London.” In making this change, of course, I also elided Brett’s slightly protective reference both to Britten’s inspiration and to the “hostility” he experienced. Elsewhere, Brett’s image of an oppositional Britten, speaking truth from the margins, is counterbalanced—perhaps, in the end, superseded—by a sense of Britten’s music as negotiating “the contradictions of modernism and mid-20th-century modernity: finding a middle ground between communication and exploration and between tradition and the new, and responding in sophisticated ways to its political and cultural moment.”

Brett’s article was always one of the more personal and idiosyncratic in Grove. This was part of its attraction. Once I was to take at least partial responsibility for it, though, I found myself wanting a bit more distance, and this put me in a bind. What could be worse than erasing Brett’s singular voice at its most personal? After all, Brett’s approach was quite explicitly rooted in his own identity as a gay man who, like Britten, had struggled to live openly and without shame, and to find connections between his homosexuality and public life. But the intimate and sometimes defensive tone of the article, I decided, made it feel precisely “dated,” rooted in the particular musicological and social environment of the mid-1990s (the same environment that produced Humphrey Carpenter’s then slightly scandalous biography of Britten, now largely displaced). So I adjusted it, revising sections that felt to me most rooted in musicology circa 1995.

These included forays into amateur psychoanalysis and affirming descriptions (along with unverifiable judgments) of Britten’s sexual life. Brett had long been committed to the idea that Britten, as a marginalized figure himself, would identify with other oppressed groups, but he seems to have changed his mind shortly before writing the Grove article, and his disappointment in Britten’s failure to identify with other “others” is palpable. “This limitation,” Brett writes, “is perhaps the chief reason his greatness needs to be qualified.” This sense of disappointment, too, I tended to elide, since I don’t find Britten more sympathetic to women and non-Western “others” than any other composer, nor do I expect him to be, based on his sexual preference, particularly given his position of relative privilege.

I spent months taking passages out and putting them back, trying to find the right approach to what seemed like a fairly impossible task. I expect the Grove Music Online Britten article will continue to evolve over the years. However, Brett’s influential print article will remain. 

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