Friday, 13 November 2009

'A storm of tears'

The weekend newspapers in the UK were full of articles on Alan Bennett, celebrating his new play, The Habit of Art, which opens this week. His subject is an imagined meeting between W H Auden and Benjamin Britten as both approached the end of their lives (in reality, they went their separate ways in the early 1940s).

Auden’s relationship with Britten reached its creative peak in the 1930s, producing half a dozen major works and a number of songs. Philip Hensher in the Guardian, assesses the partnership thus:

For a few years the two came together; they were never truly compatible, artistically or as people, and their joint products are tantalising rather than fulfilled.

It is Hensher’s argument that Britten composed better operas with lesser librettists while it took a composer of the stature of Stravinsky to bring out the best of Auden (in The Rake’s Progress). Donald Mitchell, in his acclaimed series of lectures Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936, explains perhaps why Hensher feels a sense of disappointment:

It is absolutely necessary to see the thirties, for Britten, as an integral part of the continuous history of his growth as a composer, albeit a highly important part. If one can understand that the contribution he made to the decade was the result of being the personality that he already was, and also, and no less interestingly, that his post-thirties development shows an equivalent consistency, one is well on the way to comprehending the overall consistency of his life’s work. [p.21]

In an article in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett admits to finding Britten ‘a difficult man to like…glamorous though he must have been and a superb teacher’. He quotes Auden as saying, ‘Real artists are not nice people…All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue’ and continues:

Both Britten and Pears were notorious for cutting people out of their lives…friends and acquaintances suddenly turned into living corpses if they overstepped the mark.

Despite this, Tim Adams, in a long piece in Sunday’s Observer, points out:

In his notes to The Habit of Art Bennett suggests that he identifies himself in the play not with Auden but with Benjamin Britten, the poet's estranged friend and one-time collaborator. In their fictitious meeting in the play Britten is repressed and tongue-tied, next to Auden, who is anything but.

Once again, Donald Mitchell is illuminating on this point:

The poet’s fearsome brilliance of mind, prodigious learning and intellectual curiosity were embodied in a person whom Britten…found increasingly and dauntingly dogmatic and authoritarian in his views and attitudes; and the composer’s negative reaction was of course exacerbated – exaggerated – by his own sense of ‘inferiority’. [pp.134-5]

Mitchell further illuminates Philip Hensher’s point about the tantalising if unfulfilled nature of the Britten/Auden collaborations, pointing out that ‘the somewhat baffling texts of the framing Prologue and Epilogue in Our Hunting Fathers were the last to be tackled by the composer because their very complexity presented him with a particular musical problem.’ Britten was willing to go along with an element of verbal obscurity, especially when its source was an admired figure like Auden. However ‘once he was set tasks of immeasurable verbal difficulty to solve, challenges which he found positively anti-musical, the seeds of later rebellion were sown…we can begin to discern the cause of the friction that led finally to their going their independent ways.’ [p.136]

Bennett’s idea of having Auden and Britten meet again after several decades will certainly make for a fascinating evening in the theatre (audiences certainly anticipate it – the play is fully booked until 2010). One might even wish that they had collaborated again when Britten’s compositional powers were even greater than they were in the 1930s. However, we should not forget the enduring effect that Auden had on the younger composer, as this moving conclusion to Donald Mitchell’s Preface to the revised edition of his book demonstrates:

In 1973, when Britten was staying with us in Sussex, he responded to the unexpected news of Auden’s death, ‘with a storm of tears’, as I was to write later. (It was the only time I ever witnessed Britten weeping.) I have no doubt that in those tears, grief and gratitude were present in equal measure.

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