Martin Kettle on Benjamin Brittan:
Is it important, and if so in what sense and to what degree, that one of this country’s most significant composers of the past century – in many people’s view, the most significant modern British composer of them all – was intensely attracted to underage young boys, invited them to stay at his home, sometimes took them into his bed, or kissed them?
I’d have to say ‘No’. Well, not to me, anyway.
But why should it trouble you, Martin?
And there are two important current reasons why those of us who revere Britten and his music should ensure that it continues to be properly discussed and not tut-tutted away.
The first is that 22 November marks the official start of a long and vast set of celebrations to mark Britten’s centenary.
The last thing his music needs is to be subverted by a pointless denial of his complex sexuality.
Why should that even come up? Isn’t it 2012?
I can’t say that the first thing that springs to mind when listening to the opening bars to ‘Fast Love’ is that George Michael is gay, nor that – on hearing ‘Hey, You, Get Offa My Cloud’ on Radio 2 – that Mick Jagger has a bit of a reputation as a ladies man.
So why would this be an issue on hearing a Britten composition?
The other is the explosive effect of the Jimmy Savile scandal….
Ah. Right. Of course, the nom du jour.
It is clear that Savile has raised to new heights the question of whether other public figures have been allowed to manipulate their fame and standing to protect their sexual activities from scrutiny. Maybe Britten was one of them.
Who claims this?
That question has certainly been asked by the Daily Mail.
Ah. Right. And of course, the ‘Guardian’ always worries what the ‘Daily Mail’ thinks, right?
Two plus two makes five? Maybe. Anti-BBC mischief-making? Of course. But thoughtful admirers of Britten have to take the questioning and the issue seriously and not dismiss it as arrogantly as some fans have done. Sexual exploitation ruins lives. It gets covered up. And if the children’s commissioner’s report is right – which is disputed – there are thousands of cases.
Why can’t you just dismiss it? The ‘Guardian’ always seems very good at dismissing things to me…
As it happens, Britten’s relationship with children and Savile’s are not remotely comparable.
In the first place, no evidence has come to light that Britten assaulted any boys, let alone on a serial basis as in Savile’s case.
I’m not aware that any actual evidence has come to light in Savile’s, either. Plenty of accusation, yes. And as Anna Raccoon’s superb series has shown, it’s all a bit dodgy in a rather different way…
But since when did the ‘Guardian’ accept the No Smoke Without Fire hypothesis?
Second, the ground has been very extensively gone over, not least by both Carpenter and Bridcut.
Same with Savile, but it’s just that alternative conclusions appear to have been reached…
Third, many of the boys to whom Britten was close – and some of the parents who knew something of the composer’s ways – remained friendly and respectful to Britten.
Well, so what?
That is not a watertight defence. The line between inappropriate and illegal behaviour can be a grey one. Bob Shingleton, whose excellent On An Overgrown Path blog has not shirked the issues, points out that even the acknowledged facts about Britten’s bed-sharing and kissing would be enough to disturb many people.
And once again, who cares what the repressed think? That’s never troubled the ‘Guardian’ before, has it?
But it wouldn’t stop Britten being a great composer, any more than murdering someone disqualifies Gesualdo, antisemitism disqualifies Wagner, or being an anti-Dreyfusard disqualifies Cézanne from being a master painter.
That this needs to be said is perhaps an indication of how low the ‘Guardian’ readership has sunk…
But there must be some other reason for Martin to want to absolve Britten of the taint. What could it be?
Sex is not the only thing that mattered to Britten. Nor is it the only thing in his life that matters in his music. Pacifism mattered. So did leftwing politics, a distaste for public moralising, and the desire to be what he once called a “useful composer”, writing music that energised, beautified and enriched the life of the world.
Ahh, yes. Repeat after me:
”One of us, one of us, one of us….”