Tell me the truth about love

Opera North
Festival of Britten 2013/14

Benjamin Britten was much loved. As a delicate small child, who nearly died from pneumonia when he was three months old, he was immensely endearing, with blue eyes and a riot of golden curls. According to his sister Beth, he was addressed as 'Dear' so frequently that he came to believe that it was his name. His mother adored him and encouraged his music-making from the start, thrilled that her darling boy had been born on 22 November, the feast day of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. His relationship with his father was less close – he was very strict and all four Britten children were a little afraid of him.

It was perhaps from those very early days that Britten grew, not to demand, but to accept devotion as his due, and to find it natural to be at the centre of things, to be the focus of attention and admiration. Despite being precociously brilliant musically, he retained a childlike and naïve quality for many years, declaring at the age of 17 that the film of Emil and the Detectives, based on Emil Kästner's book for children, was 'the most perfect and satisfying film I have ever seen or hope to see … a colossal achievement'. He was shocked and disgusted by drunken behaviour or what he considered to be grubby, 'dirty old man' sexual proclivities.

A certain innocence was to remain with Britten all his life and this, despite much speculation and an avalanche of words expended on the subject, almost certainly prevailed in his relationships with the many young boys who inspired his affection. Physical beauty and grace were powerful attractions. A keen sportsman himself – in particular a highly competitive tennis player with a demon serve - he could take enormous pleasure in the sight of 'white-clad little figures prancing about on the green' when visiting WH Auden at the Downs School where he taught in the early 1930s.

Some years later, after failing to dissuade Britten from returning to England from the United States, Auden was to write, with considerable, but typically sharp-edged, perception: 'Wherever you go you are and probably always will be surrounded by people who adore you, nurse you, and praise everything you do […] Up to a certain point this is fine for you, but beware. You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself in this way, i.e. to build yourself a warm nest of love (of course when you get it, you find it a little stifling) by playing the lovable talented little boy.'

It was his friendship with Auden, who he met when collaborating on the documentary film Coal Face, which was to introduce Britten to a world of freely acknowledged homosexuality, albeit in the stifling and potentially career - and life - wrecking context of homosexual practices being officially illegal. Britten described Auden when he first met him as 'a startling personality - but absolutely sincere and very brilliant. He has a very wide knowledge, not only of course of literature but of every branch of art' and was dazzled by his fluent and freely expressed opinions. On the subject of music at least, Auden was happy to bow to Britten's superior knowledge, but as far as his inhibitions were concerned he was both impatient and sceptical. Paul Godfrey, in his 1990 play Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens, touches on this:

Britten I love your grasp of words
as if they were solid things,
as if you could turn them round in your hands.
Auden When I use a word it means what I choose it
to mean, but the eloquence of your music is
another matter.
Britten Why do people talk about music,
as if there was anything to be said?
Auden Your music, it speaks directly to my heart.
Britten And what does it say?
Auden It begs questions.
All that emotion:
shifting and turning.
So much ambiguity.
Britten You build me up.
I can barely follow this conversation.
Auden You may act innocent
but the music gives you away.

Certainly by the late 1930s, Britten was still unawakened. Christopher Isherwood wrote in 1980 that he and Auden tried 'to bring him out' and that they 'were extraordinarily interfering in this respect - as bossy as a pair of self-assured young psychiatrists'. Another friend, Basil Wright, remembered saying to Isherwood, 'Well, have we convinced Ben he's queer, or haven't we?'

Britten had lost both his parents by the time he was 24. After his father died of cancer in 1934, he and his mother had become still closer. She accompanied him on a European trip funded by a travelling scholarship he had been awarded; she remained stalwartly supportive of his composing career, even when less than enthusiastic about the music he produced; and she dropped everything to come and help him look after Beth, who was staying at his flat in Finchley Road in North London in January 1937 and had come down with a bad case of flu. Within days she had caught the flu herself, it turned into pneumonia and she died of a heart attack, aged only 63. As Britten wrote in his diary in October that year: 'The loss of Mum & Pop, instead of lessening, seems to be more & more apparent every day. Scarcely bearable. Nowhere to look for help or comfort - & I am weak enough to want them very often.'

Fortunately for Britten, comfort was at hand. 'O tell me the truth about love', Auden had written for a cabaret song which Britten had set to music:

Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

It came in the shape of a man named Peter Pears, and it did alter his life altogether.

From the start they loved making music together. Pears possessed a fine tenor voice but at that stage, little ambition. Britten heard a quality in the voice, a sensitivity and imaginative response which inspired him, and Pears recognized in Britten's piano playing 'an extraordinary connection between his brain and his heart and the tips of his fingers'.

Britten accompanied Pears in song recitals and soon began to write songs specially for him. After their return from America, where they had spent the first years of the Second World War, they were asked to give a recital at the Wigmore Hall, in September 1942. It was, in many ways, an astonishingly brave act. They were known to be conscientious objectors, they were suspected to be sexual partners and they performed a setting by Britten of Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. As biographer Neil Powell wrote: 'The audience response was rapturous, although a later Telegraph critic, Peter Stadlen, remembered that it was preceded by "a second or two of tense silence": as the two men on stage were, after all, well-known as pacifists in wartime, but were they also - in these settings of homo-erotic poems dedicated by one to the other - quietly yet firmly declaring something else? That Britten and Pears were announcing more than a musical partnership seems to have been tacitly understood and accepted with tactful generosity by many, perhaps most, of those present.'

The letters between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears testify to their love, freely and uninhibitedly expressed. They treasured and thanked each other for the good times, showed their appreciation for each other's skills as performer and composer, and offered comfort when required, although Britten's physical frailty, his 'procession of illnesses', and his frequent descents into black depression were at times hard for the more robust Pears to comprehend. As Britten grew in stature as an opera composer he was to create numerous roles for Pears to sing, from the title role in Peter Grimes and Captain Vere in Billy Budd to Quint in The Turn of the Screw and, ultimately, Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. Love as represented in the operas, however, was rarely free and uninhibited. Grimes is unable to express his love for Ellen Orford; Vere loves the 'beauty, handsomeness, goodness' of Billy Budd but is helpless to save him from Claggart, whose own love for Billy turns to loathing; Essex's love for Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, is tainted by self-love and thwarted ambition; Collatinus loves his wife, Lucretia, but she cannot bear to live after the violation of her rape by Tarquinius and her terror of having been in some way complicit; Quint's love for the boy Miles is sinister and corrupt; Gustav von Aschenbach yearns after the exquisite Tadzio from afar, with no hope of his love ever being recognised or returned. It is left to Sid and Nancy in Albert Herring to be straightforward, sexy and entirely at ease with each other,

Arm in arm,
Your hand in my pocket,
My hand in yours.

As for A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Hall, who directed both the opera and Shakespeare's play in his time, once remarked that the difference between them was that in Britten's version there was no love.

No-one can ever really know the truth about love but Benjamin Britten was sustained by it all his life, and he certainly knew some of its truths:

'… my happiest & and most treasured memory is of the wonderful peace and contentment of your love and friendship. Love, such as I felt we had in those 3 weeks [March 1949], is a rare thing – as beautiful and luminous as this sea outside, and with endless depths too. Thank you, my dearest …'