Notes and Editorial Reviews
BENJAMIN BRITTEN—Peace and Conflict
John Hurt (narr); Alex Lawther
Bradley Hall (
); Christopher Theobald (
); James Gilchrist (ten); Jake Arditti (ct); Gerard Collett (b); Iain Burnside, Mark Jones (pn); Raphael Wallfisch (vc); Benyounes Qrt; Gresham’s Brass Group; Gresham’s Senior Ch
CAPRIOL FILMS 08 (DVD 105:00) A film by Tony Britten
This interesting and useful approach to Benjamin Britten begins with the sounds of the opening of the composer’s
(1963), and this provides the immanent theme of this story. Through his study of Britten’s diaries and letters, especially those of his school days, Tony Britten (no relation that I am aware of) came to an understanding of the origin of what most people accept as the dark streak in much of Britten’s music. This he sees as having been brought into focus while he was a student (1928–30) at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, a school seen as quite liberal in its day.
The school had lost one-fifth of its pupils and three of its teachers during the First World War, and this had left its mark upon the institution. After the war, it fostered open debate on political questions, of which, according to the film, the two chiefly of interest to Britten were pacifism and Communism. Though Britten wrote some socialist pieces in the late 1930s—
incidental music to Montagu Slater’s play
Stay Down Miner, Advance Democracy
—it is clear that, rather than a political position impressing itself upon him, it is a consistent anti-war sentiment that becomes fast in him, and this is the explicit theme for Tony Britten in his film. Indeed, it is the film’s specific thesis about what lies underneath Britten’s music. Further, of all the biographical attention paid to Britten in his centenary year, this is the only one known to me to place the composer’s creative impulse in his pacifism, and to locate the origin of that standpoint in his school experience.
A hour and half is not nearly enough time, of course, to explore the breadth of Benjamin Britten’s accomplishments as a composer, and Tony Britten has made some interesting choices in following this particular line: Most of the operas, for instance, many of which deal with social issues, are missing or only barely mentioned, (though
gets an aria), but he finds their equivalents in many of the songs. Note, however, that though this is the rail upon which this train runs, Tony Britten nowhere suggests that there are not also parallel rails. This, then, is one view of Benjamin Britten.
To make this film, Tony Britten used young professional actors of near the age of the boys in question (and one of whom, at least, is a recent graduate of the school), members of the school today, interviews with a number of people associated with the school, Britten, or his music, historical film clips, and a narrator to set the scene and bridge the gaps. Alex Lawther looks uncannily like the young Britten, and has mastered the slightly withdrawn, somewhat incommunicative, but internally assured deportment described of him in other biographies. The dialogue for the dramatized bits strikes me as reasonably likely and is, in any event, a vast improvement from Tony Britten on his previous musical film, a docu-drama about Peter Warlock (rev 33:1). It shares one characteristic of that film, however, and that is Tony Britten’s loving use of exquisite photography and elegant old cars, motorcycles, tractors, and steam trains, all immaculately preserved.
Because so much emphasis is placed upon Britten’s three years at Gresham’s, the rest of his life is rather hastily sketched We learn little about Britten’s music and that almost only in terms of its relationship to his theme, though Joseph Horowitz of the Royal College of Music manages to catch some central aspects of it in a few words, as do Iain Burnside and Raphael Wallfisch, who also perform some of it with James Gilchrist and Jake Arditti. There are also fine performances of a couple of the shorter choral pieces by the Senior Choir of the school and the Senior Brass Group. There is little about the gestation of any piece. However, Tony Britten makes much of the visit Britten and Yehudi Menuhin made immediately after the war to perform for the now-displaced survivors at the concentration camp at Belsen. He specifically claims that Britten’s Second String Quartet was “undoubtedly fuelled” by the visit, but offers no suggestion of why one can say that, save by the juxtaposition of the opening of the third movement, played here by the Benyounes Quartet, which is, to be sure, rather spare. That Britten was moved by the visit is clear: that it comes out in the Quartet, written, as it happens, in the context of a Purcell commemoration, is less so. In connection with this visit, Tony Britten was also able to interview one of those survivors, the cellist Anita Lasker Wallfisch, who remembered that visit and how she “was totally fascinated by the guy who played the piano.”
W. H. Auden, a somewhat older Greshamian, makes more than a guest appearance, to be sure, but Britten’s time in America is glossed over, though it expresses Britten’s dislike of the place that had, after all, supported him.
Absent are the great struggles, with bureaucracies, managements, performers, and all the more or less permanent impingements upon the creative life, and there is little about Britten’s social life: mentioned only in passing, for instance, is the relationship with Peter Pears. And, yet, it is here Tony Britten makes what seems to me a curious choice with which to end his story.
Toward the end, Tony Britten takes up the occasionally muttered complaint that Britten used people and threw them away when they were no longer useful or irritated him. Now, a maker of anything can take what he makes in any direction he wants, but I did find it unclear just why Tony Britten chose to close the film with this, previously unbroached, social question in a story centered upon Britten’s pacifism and its impulse in his music. The defense is firmly offered by Sue Phipps, Britten’s and Pears’s long-time agent, that that is what has to happen to allow the creative person to get on with his work. At the very end of the film, John Hurt reads from the now well-known letter of advice Auden gave Britten just when he returned to England, against letting himself be coddled and surrounded by protectors, and of needing to suffer, to make others suffer, and to understand and be humbled by the fact that he has done so. Through John Hurt’s closing comment, Tony Britten agrees with Sue Phipps.
One may disagree with its generating premise that art is derived from biography, and one may disagree with its specific premise that Britten’s pacifism was the engine of his art, and one may be occasionally puzzled by Tony Britten’s choices, but for anyone interested in Benjamin Britten, I much recommend this film. It is sensible and mostly sticks to its course.
FANFARE: Alan Swanson
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