The Graun on Britten: political idiots hail a political idiot

November 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm (apologists and collaborators, Beyond parody, Champagne Charlie, crap, grovelling, Guardian, history, jerk, middle class, music, relativism, stalinism, truth, USSR)

Today’s Graun carries an editorial about a man who wrote some fine music but who was (to be charitable) an idiot when it came to politics. Maybe because his execrable political opinions quite resemble those of many Graun journalists and (no doubt) readers, it’s an almost laughable piece of hagiography:

Benjamin Britten at 100: voice of the century

Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality 

Imagine an English classical music composer who is so famous in his own lifetime that his name is known throughout the country, who is the first British composer to end his life as a peer of the realm, a composer from whom the BBC uniquely commissions a prime-time new opera for television, and whose every important new premiere is a national event, a recording of one of which – though it is 90 minutes long – sells 200,000 copies almost as soon as it is released, and a musician whose death leads the news bulletins and the front pages.

Next, imagine an English classical composer who is a gay man when homosexuality is still illegal, who lives and writes at an angle to the world, who can compose strikingly subversive music, who is passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes.

Now, imagine an English composer who in many estimations is simply the most prodigiously talented musician ever born in this country, who wrote some of the deepest and most rewarding scores of the 20th century, who set the English language to music more beautifully than anyone before or since, who almost single-handedly created an English operatic tradition and who, all his life, saw it as his responsibility to write music, not just for the academic priesthood or for the music professionals but for the common people, young and old, of his country.

Benjamin Britten, who was born in Lowestoft 100 years ago, was not just some of those multifarious things. He was all of them. And he was much more besides – including a wonderful pianist, the founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, and arguably the 20th century composer who is best served by his own extensive legacy in the recording studio. He was also, as many have written, a difficult and troubled man – even at times a troubling one.

Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality. In his 1964 Aspen lecture, Britten said: “I do not write for posterity.” In fact, he did. In his lecture he said he wanted his music to be useful – a noble aim for an artist. He said he did not write for pressure groups, snobs or critics. He wrote, he said, as a member of society. His job was to write music that would inspire, comfort, touch, entertain and “even educate” his fellows. Britten spoke – and composed – as a serious man of his serious time. Impressively, much of that endures. If we seem today to have let some of Britten’s ideals slip, that may say more about our shortcomings as a culture than about Britten’s greatness and achievement, then and now.

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Bearing in mind that “visitor to the Soviet Union” is  Grauniad-speak for “willfully blind apologist for mass-murder”, just how many non-sequiturs can you spot in the following:

“…passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes”
..?

6 Comments

  1. The Graun on Britten: political idiots hail a political idiot | OzHouse said,

    […] Nov 22 2013 by admin […]

  2. Andrew Coates said,

    Brtten returned to the UK in 1942.

    When they retired my parents lived in a village that is very close to Snape Maltings (home of the Aldeburgh Festival).

    I would think that it is one of snobbiest places in the country, and that’s saying something.

    Britten’s music is not to my taste, I prefer various forms of real 20th century modernism.

    One piece that always irks me is Peter Grimes.

    This is set (after Crabbe) in Aldeburgh and paints the Alde Estuary (which becomes the Ore at Orford), in what is (ridiculously) described and put on scene as some kind of end of the world desolation.

    The poet Crabbe is bad enough with his “finny tribe”.

    But the Opera is excretable.

    And that them there Peter Pears……

  3. paul maleski said,

    Benjamin Britten had very similar tastes in life to Edward Heath, in both: music and extra curricular activities; however, Ted Heath played his organ in an Anglican Church. The duo will not be remembered for their contribution to European High Culture. Nevertheless, they will be remembered–for all the wrong reasons.

  4. Joanne said,

    Spot the non-sequiturs? Here’s a glaring one:

    “as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes

    The only way this would make sense is if he frequently criticized the lack of civil liberties in the USSR during his visits there.

  5. Alex Ross said,

    In fairness to Britten, his main reason for visiting the USSR was his deep friendship with Shostakovich and Rostropovich (both of whom were notable dissidents – although the evidence regarding Shostakovich’s precise relationship with the regime is a subject of fierce debate).

    He was extremely naive,(as, of course, his visit was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union) and, yes, his politics were often something of a car crash. But he is not in the same category as, say, Beatrice and Sidney Webb…

    .

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