Britten in Pictures
Edited by Lucy Walker
The Boydell Press
266pp. incl. Bibliography and References, Sources and Acknowledgements, Index
First published 2012; paperback format
Retail price £19.99
I had assumed I would, over a period of time, dip into this pictorial album of Britten’s life and eventually review it but, once started, I could not put it down until I had looked at every picture (400 odd) and read every word. At a highly affordable price, this is more than value for money and heads what will be a procession of books and other reminders that 2013 is Britten’s centenary year. As well as Britten in Pictures (a clever pun on Britain in Pictures, a social history series produced in the 1930s and 1940s edited by W J Turner), Boydell Press publishes the sixth and last volume of Letters from a Life, also Making Musicians (a personal history by Moira Bennett of the Britten-Pears School), Hans Keller’s Britten, The Musical Character and Other Writings, Essays on Gloriana edited by Paul Banks, Christopher Wintle’s All the Gods (Britten’s Night-piece in context) and offers books already in their current and back catalogue (The Britten Collection).
There is curiously no mention that I can find in Britten in Pictures that the composer also had the first name Edward, other than what one can see in a few images themselves, student signatures ‘E B Britten’ and his application form made out to Edward Benjamin Britten to register as a conscientious objector. Why he dropped it could have been included in the fine introduction by Christopher Grogan (Director of Collections and Heritage at the Britten-Pears Foundation), which not only makes compelling reading but is also full of insight and sensitivity when dealing with the Britten-Pears relationship and Britten’s camera shyness, which was manifested by maintaining strict control of images destined for the public domain. The two men first met in 1937 but the relationship began a few years later when they arrived in America and it lasted until Britten’s death in 1976. Of those four decades, three quarters were spent in the threatening shadow of possible criminal prosecution until laws against homosexual acts between consulting adult males were repealed in 1967 after the Wolfenden report ten years earlier. As Pears himself succinctly put it, ‘we are after all queer and left and conshies, which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale, apart from being artists as well’. Britten, unlike Pears, was far more concerned that their relationship would be exposed. Their relationship was both touching and, at the end, deeply moving with the singer’s craggy features showing visible concern for his partner’s rapidly increasing frailty in photographs taken during the few years remaining to Britten after his serious valve-replacement heart operation. Within these pages you will find a tiny handful in which they face one another. Britten very rarely looks at Pears, who invariably looks with devotion at his partner. Pears has a look for the camera which warmly invites whereas Britten shyly excludes, Pears smiles but Britten is serious, Pears is relaxed whilst Britten is tense and rarely relaxes beyond that ‘enigmatic smile’.
Whilst being biographical in its chronological arrangement of the photographs, this book is not a conventional biography but rather each of the six chapters sets out a bullet-point timeline which traces the course of Britten’s 63 years. A small complaint concerns the captions for which some of the font size is either too small or unclear against various coloured backgrounds. His Suffolk homes, from that of his birthplace in Lowestoft to his final purchase at Horham to escape the roar of low-flying American planes which disturbed his creative process, provide one continuum whilst another are the increasing opus numbers of his compositions. Opera productions dominate the photographic content with informal ones of cast members, rehearsals, sets and costumes from drawing board to stage but there are also musical manuscripts, sketches, notebooks, letters and programmes together making this a fascinating compilation of black and white and colour images. Naturally Aldeburgh and Snape dominate Britten’s working and private life - including pictures of Pears and Britten in the ruins of the burnt-out Maltings reminiscent of Henry Wood in those of the bombed Queen’s Hall - but there are also plenty taken elsewhere at home and abroad from Bali to Venice. Britten may have, as Grogan describes it, ‘constructed impervious defences when put in the position of sitting for artists and photographers’ but as well as such stiff poses there are plenty where he has been caught off-guard and those darker corners have been illuminated. My favourite is an informal one for Picture Post of Pears and Britten choosing vegetables from the stall of the bowler-hatted and wonderfully named greengrocer Jonah Baggott on Aldeburgh High Street in 1948. This collection is a must-buy for all devotees of one of the greatest composers of the last century.
A must-buy for all devotees of one of the greatest composers of the last century.
Foreword by Nigel Luckhurst: Photographing Ben
Introduction: Looking behind Britten’s ‘enigmatic smile’
Chapter 1: A boy was born: 1913-1939
Chapter 2: Diversions: 1939-1947
Chapter 3: Metamorphoses: 1947-1957
Chapter 4: Voices for today: 1957-1967
Chapter 5: A time there was: 1967-1976
Chapter 6: Praise we great men: after 1976