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In the age of Jimmy Savile, can Benjamin Britten survive the spotlight?

Ahead of the Britten centennial, the smut-stirrers are hard at work. A Daily Wail columnist has been asking, with all the usual huff of manufactured indignation, whether the BBC will ‘acknowledge’ the great composer’s ‘obsession’ with young boys’. Other hacks will follow that selfsame well-worn tabloid line unless the issue is laid to rest before Britten-100 begins.

The facts of Britten’s friendships with boys have been thoroughly researched and laid out in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography – and Humphrey was, for most of his life, a BBC programme maker. So, yes, Daily Mail, the BBC has acknowledged it.

They were even more comprehensively laid out in John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children. John, too, is a BBC programme maker.

Britten formed many friendships with young boys and was probably attracted to them sexually. Nothing untoward ever came to pass. No boy had cause for complaint. Many have spoken out in gratitude for his kindness and concern. No child was harmed in the making of Benjamin Britten.

In my monthly essay in Standpoint, I argue that we need to look at Britten from a different perspective – not just as a breakthrough (though, it must be said, variable) composer, but as a public benefactor who, from his earliest successes, turned his earnings and his fame to the advancement of musical education and the assistance of other, struggling composers.

Few composers in history have put back in more than they took out. Britten’s generosity is unmatched. He deserves a statue in an arts centre, like London’s South Bank, not a slew of uncontested tabloid slurs. Read the Standpoint essay here.

As if to underline my point, two British composers scored massive triumphs this month on the world stage – Thomas Ades at the Metropolitan Opera with the Tempest and George Benjamin at Netherlands Opera with Written on Skin. Both benefited from Britten largesse. Both are published by the imprint that Britten founded. Both are proof that no composer is an island. Creative work flourishes in a place of precedence. Britten made it possible for his successors to be great. His private life is, thanks to Carpenter and Bridcut, an open book. Nothing to hide. End of story.


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  1. Hear, hear!

  2. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s that simple.

  3. Nicholas Riddle says:

    Many thanks for this article, Norman. My aunt worked at the Aldeburgh Festival for many years, and I spent time there every year from about the age of 10. In spite of being in and around “the orbit”, I never saw the slightest evidence of any unhealthy interest on Britten’s part in children, although I think he liked them as people, got on with them well, and certainly liked the sound of their voices from a musical point of view. They were, it seems to me, relatively uncomplicated human beings who did not generate the insecurities in him that dealings with some adults apparently did (although I think this may also be overdone in the popular view).

    However, another abiding memory of that time is that people generally assumed that any gay man was usually interested in young boys. It was, as it were, the default view. In fact, the general impression was that homosexuality was really all about older men and younger boys in some pseudo-Grecian arrangement. One found that attitude in school, and in society. When one of my father’s colleagues heard that I was spending time in Aldeburgh, he took him aside and asked him whether he realized what danger I must be in among all those “queers” – the automatic assumption being that a young teenager must be a target for any gay man. So, it has always seemed to me that the assumption was that since Britten was obviously gay – after all, he had been living remarkably openly with the same man for decades – and because he manifestly did get on with children and liked their voices, that this was just evidence of the truth of that general belief. Unfortunately, his reputation has continued to be tarnished with this out-of-date and ridiculous attitude.

    It is also manifest nonsense. What Britten undeniably was interested in was the older (by only 3 years) man with whom he shared his life from 1942 to 1976. There is heaps and heaps of evidence for that, and none at all for his supposed sexual interest in boys. So, Norman, I think when you say he was “probably attracted to them sexually”, I think this is nonsense, seriously lacking in real evidence, and is the spilling over of 1970s ignorance about homosexuality into our thinking today about a great composer.

    Incidentally, while I know you regarded Humphrey Carpenter highly, I thought his book about Britten contained far too much snide assumption and a great deal of regurgitated gossip, especially on this point, fatally undermining its merits. He totally failed to land a single punch in this area, but still left the reader with a feeling that so much smoke must mean there was at least potential fire somewhere. He completely failed in my view to distinguish between a relatively dull truth of a happy and successful relationship with the malign witterings of the jealous, the misinformed, and the homophobic views of those days.

    • Bravo, Nicholas. Thanks for taking the time to say all that.

      We all seem to agree that there has never been any evidence that Britten ever behaved inappropriately toward any of the boys he befriended. But there still seems to be, even today, some consensus (though not universally shared) that Britten really did have a sexual interest in those boys, even if he never acted on it. What’s that conclusion based on? Is there some evidence or contemporary testimony of some sort? As Nicholas indicates, leaping to such a conclusion (even if incorrect) might have made some sense in a 1950s context, but in 2012?

      • There is a good deal of evidence that BB felt a sexual attraction for teenaged boys (see, e.g., Carpenter pp 348-52). That may have been the way his brain was wired.

        The point is, as you say Matthew, that he never acted upon it in any improper way. On the contrary, his propriety was almost excessive. That being the case, there is nothing to hide and nothing to fear of tabloid smear. We need to move on and show Britten for what he really was – a great composer and public benefactor.

  4. This would be the same Daily Mail that is (faux-)outraged at alleged paedophiles yet is quite happy to sexualise girls as soon as they turn 16.

    There is a certain type of person who associates paedophiles with gays and vice (sic) versa. I was speaking to a gentleman of (shall we say) advanced years the other day about Saville and he said “I always thought ‘e were a woofter”. I don’t think he actually was a “woofter” as the young children he was into were all (afaik) girls! I didn’t push the point however, it wasn’t the time or the place…

  5. I generally love Britten’s music. I also have not speculated nor taken the time to learn about his supposed ‘obsession with boys’. Whereas there are undoubtably many who would write accusatory comments about people like Britten for the sake of riling up the public, there are also those who, through their intellect, their money, their influence and their writings, protect those who indeed are pedophiles. This is the case with one very famous conductor in New York who because of his protective circle has yet to be brought to justice for abusing children. This conductor abused me when I was a child, so I know. I just wanted to say that although there is for me nothing wrong with any man enjoying the company of boys, one should be aware that there are those who would indeed cover up abuse of those boys by others for the sake of preserving the abusers genius and perhaps their desires which cripple others. For me, pedophilia is on par with murder. It is important to admit that there are those that protect these abusers.

    • Absolutely agree.

    • Stuart Green says:

      Yes we all know who you mean.

    • It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

      Would you be prepared to testify if this fellow was brought to trial?

      • yes, certainly. I have looked into some legal aspects. Now it is too late…statue of limitations at least for me.:)
        But yes.


    • Lord Alfred says:

      “there are also those who, through their intellect, their money, their influence and their writings, protect those who indeed are pedophiles.” A thorough inquiry into the N Wales care home scandal will demonstrate that clearly enough.

      I remember clearly a violinist friend (who died tragically, some years ago, of a sudden brain hemorrhage) telling me that a close cellist friend of hers was raped by a cellist of international repute, I think during a course at Aldeburgh, but who felt it was futile to report it, such was the power and “respect” he commanded.

  6. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    On Savile. He was an openly predatory bastard, pure and simple.

    There is a very clear distinction between say, having poor judgment as a young man or teenager, and being a predatory bastard like Savile. I’m not from the U.K. and I don’t know if I ever heard of him before all the recent hoo-hah. If I’d lived in the U.K. and interacted with him, he’d have been very wary of me, and there’s a chance we’d have had a run-in. The great shame is that people ignored his blindly obvious behaviours because it suited them to do so.

    And fear of him? Bugger off! The German author Herman Hesse once wrote that if you fear someone, it is because you give them power over you. People like Savile are ALWAYS more afraid of those who could sort them out than they let on: ALWAYS. Part of their bluff and bluster, even if they raise the ante in a physical way, is about trying to make others more fearful than they themselves are. But they are ALWAYS more fearful than they let on: it just takes the right people to crash through that and expose it for what it is.

    I should temper my own comment by noting that of course sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. But that’s not the same as doing nothing: just means confrontation is not always the smartest way to do things – but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

    As for Benjamin Britten, my suggestion would be that the BBC should do a “tell it like it is (or was)” documentary first: just deal with the facts as they are known, including the sorts of commentary I see here from people who were part of the “orbit”.

    On the face of it, it seems that he would stand up to scrutiny: but one should not shy away from an honest documentary scrutiny. Having done that, the BBC positions itself to gauge public reaction. If he stands up to scrutiny, such reaction should not be unfavourable. The BBC can then tailor any tribute to Britten to do justice to his legacy and any views on his legacy.

    There are strong feelings about certain issues (as my own comment on Savile indicates), and some people will express biased views. But collectively, people aren’t entirely fools: they can tell the difference between a Savile, a Glitter, a Jackson (even if in that case they disagree on what the facts point to), and a genuinely platonic interest in young people. Lots of famous people have been smitten with youngsters: Spike Milligan is on the record as being in this category, and much of his work, especially his poetry and silly verses, was directed at that market. Now Milligan was no angel, but I’ve seen no evidence of disconcerting behaviour regarding young people. Just because Britten was – as I understand it – homosexual, does not mean he was a sexual predator. And an objective documentary should be capable of highlighting that.

    • “And an objective documentary should be capable of highlighting that”
      in the case of Britten, he has already been served by such a programme and it showed that he was not a sexual predator of any kind whatsoever. Even the more gossipy Carpenter book (see Nicholas Riddle’s excellent contribution) made that clear.
      The likes of Savile and the famous New York conductor are another matter.

      • It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

        Cheers Epoch. That should make the Beeb’s task easier. They could perhaps either run that documentary again, or refer to it in any tribute, or both.

  7. There is ALWAYS a can of worms, look at the politicians and the expenses scandal.

    As for Britten the musician, there is no doubt, but Britten the composer, me personally i don’t find his music very interesting. It seems calculated and frigid.

  8. Malcolm James says:

    In the case of Jimmy Savile ‘knowing’ seemed to have consisted of ‘I heard so many rumours from so many sources that I assumed that there had to be something in them’. A former director of the BBC in Wales said today that he banned Savile from having anything to do with his Children in Need charity because of the rumours. He could do that, but he says he never reported him because he had no evidence.

    As for Britten, he’s been dead over 35 year, pears has been dead 25, so I can’t believe someone, wouldn’t have spoken out, particularly given the climate in recent year, if there had been anything untoward about the relationships. As with Savile, if someone had come forward it might have snowballed. i simply assume that he treated them like his surrogate children.

  9. As time passes, the genius of Britten’s music seems ever more apparent, and is finally getting the recognition it deserves outside the UK. But I still think this is a very difficult issue. Even if nothing ‘untoward’ ever happened, how would such behaviour be viewed today?

  10. Malcolm James says:

    One of the tragedies is that, although none of the boys/men have indicated that their relationship with Britten was anything but a positive experience, something similar could not happen in today’s over-charged atmosphere. Too many witch-finder generals would be pointing fingers.

  11. There is something problematic here. Why are these aspects of Britten’s life made public ? I mean, if he had committed a crime of some sort, well, of course it would have to be made public. But who gives a sh*t if Britten had an “attraction for young boys”, or if he liked to collect cans ? How does that help us to better understand his music ? His private life needs as much respect when he’s dead as when he was alive. Mr Lebrecht writes : “His private life is, thanks to Carpenter and Bridcut, an open book”. But it does not need to be an open book, even if it is to rebutt an unjust accusation. Would you like, Mr Lebrecht, your private life to be an open book, even after your death ?

    • Mathieu
      Everyone’s private life should be private of course……unless you abuse others and act criminally within that private life. That’s the way I feel anyway. There are those who protect the abuser’s privacy even while they are committing crimes. Pedophiles are protected sometimes to protect corporate interests. I don’t “give a sh*t if Britten had an attraction to boys” unless he abused them. Sounds to me like he didn’t. So let’s leave him alone, right? Suffice it to say that I for one don’t care as much for one’s artistic talent once I know for certain that they are abusers. At that point their private live’s do become relevant. I am sure there are those who disagree…..that you can commit whatever you want to commit as long as it remains private……….The abused sometimes want to scream out about the fact that they were abused…it becomes public sometimes. they are hereos to me.

  12. Stephen Carpenter says:

    Just a thought.
    How many hundreds of years have there been Men and Boy Choirs in England, and how many hundreds of anthems and hymn tunes as a result?

    Maybe it’s an historic discretion and the better part of valor but it just seems to me that there is a general prurient and morbid fascination with the arts and artists of late. Further reason to denigrate, marginalize, ostracize, and euthanize the arts and those that create them is thereby generated by the “entertainment media” to raise the public outcry that results in political action. History (or the lack of it perhaps) is not on this side.

  13. I recall reading an (I can’t cite it or recall where) that David Hemmings was incensed by an interviewer’s suggestion that Britten liked boys. Hemmings, who had the role in “Turn of the Screw” many years before he grew up for “Blow Up”, had the highest respect for Britten and was insulted by the question. The question probably reflects the homosexuality = pedophile perceptions of decades ago.

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