Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of BENJAMIN BRITTEN 1913–1976. Volume Five: 1958–1965, ed. Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press 2010. 1764 pp., illustrations.
The rate of issue of this edition of Britten’s letters has gained speed since the first two volumes were published in 1991. That’s certainly a positive trend since the project was (after volume 3) taken over by Boydells. Philip Reed has been involved from the very beginning, and even after nearly twenty years the editorial principles and outlook of the books has been retained.
This generously-illustrated, sumptuously annotated series gives deep insights into Britten’s life and milieu. In this volume we witness Britten encouraging young and aspiring composers: Maxwell Davies, Bennett, Maw, Birtwistle, Williamson amongst many others. Britten had at this stage reached the peak of his career, with the composition of, amongst other works, the two cantatas, the Cello Sonata, Noye’s Fludde, Nocturne, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We should not forget the War Requiem which met with wide international acclaim.
The extent of Britten’s celebrity can be glimpsed in that Britten and Pears once dined with no less a figure than Luigi Nono and his wife in Venice. We wonder, in Britten’s letter to Nono of 1 October 1962, what the following sentence means: “Thank you very much for your note, & for the money.” A typical case where one would long for a commentary. There are more such instances in the entire series. Why, for example, are so many contemporaneous English composers entirely absent. It is interesting to see which musicians have hardly ever featured in the five volumes to date. What happened to Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells or Alan Bush - although Bush did write a song-cycle for Pears in 1953.
Naturally it is Britten’s cosmos that we experience and that affords only an incomplete vista of the actual British musical scene. This may be something a German editor would comment upon, but would it be relevant to an edition of Britten letters? I think it would, since Britten, as an outstanding figure of the British musical life in the Twentieth century - we experience him deeply involved in organising performances and performing himself - takes a very particular outlook at others, and hence influenced generations both of listeners and musicians.
Though naturally sympathetic towards Britten minor behavioural flaws are not neglected. His tirade against Lord Harewood after the break-up of his marriage (p. 631) is bitter indeed. Still, one thing becomes clear about which I have always wondered when reading the previous four volumes. There are more Britten letters than those included in these volumes. We are not told what the criteria were for their inclusion or exclusion nor is there given any information about there location, whether they are in the Britten-Pears Library or elsewhere. This means, a checking of sources is impossible. Now everybody ever having worked with original sources knows that there can easily be misspellings or misreadings, and although this is rather improbable with respect to the editors’ authority, such things can happen. Also does one wander whether there have been omissions either through the choice of letters or, in single letters, for other reasons (e.g. in Britten’s letter to E.M. Forster, 21 April 1962, p. 393).
In total however, we have a most inspiring and inspired publication, with plenty new insights into Britten and his world. Departing from this edition, and together with the multitude of other important Britten publications over the past few years, we have a much more substantial basis for future Britten research, and for the understanding of Britten and his music.