Bishop of Durham’s son (envied and reviled because a chauffeur drove him to school, thoughin a modest Citroën 2CV). The bag contained eight mugs, collected in the Bishop’s Palace,painstakingly chosen for their precise ventriloquism of an octave.There was, of course, an unofficial Britten, one we choristers knew little about. This one wasnot the coaxer of communities but perhaps their opponent or dissident. He was thecommitted pacifist and conscientious objector, the creator of the
Sinfonia da Requiem
(1940),[♪ listen ] commissioned and then rejected by the Japanese government, officially because it was too melancholy and too ‘Christian’, but probably also because it assaults anddeconstructs martial patriotism, replacing it (in a gentle, Mahlerian final movement) with a vision of comity and brotherhood. He was the explorer of shifting tonalities, waywardharmonies, creeping chromaticism. He was the composer drawn to the gullies between notes,the almost-mystic of the spare Third String Quartet (1975). He was the homosexual whoseoperas like
Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw
Death in Venice
broach andrepress difficult erotic material: same-sex desire, murderous lust, the love of boys and youngmen, the contamination of innocence. Had we but known it, we might have found most of this other Britten hiding in the joyous racket of
: all those young boys, for onething; an apparently Christian pageant that sometimes feels more like a complaint againstGod than a celebration; a body of musicians designed – because of the presence of so many children – to be out of tune with itself, so that the notes are constantly shifting and wavering,unsettling the consolations of Tallis’s Canon (which is sung as the cast processes out of thechurch); a homespun cacophony.Two biographies, by Paul Kildea and Neil Powell, intelligently appraise this official andunofficial Britten, and are rich with contradiction. Britten was quietly radical and quietly conservative. He was a joiner and a separatist: he lived most of his life in Suffolk, well away from London, which he disliked, and became that county’s most famous native son. Theannual Aldeburgh Festival, which he and his partner Peter Pears founded, was in many waysscrupulously communitarian, involving local halls, churches and craftsmen. But many feltthat Britten ran it with iron caprice, surrounded by a gang of insiders, quickly dismissingthose who fell out of favour. Warm, simple, even a little childlike with those he trusted, hecould become unreadably distant with those he did not. When Auden, who for slightly mysterious reasons had been dropped, sent him a letter about his opera
, Brittenreturned it to him in the same envelope, torn into tiny pieces.In later life, grandly established, he was commissioned to write a song-cycle for the queenmother’s 75th birthday, got the queen to open the Maltings, his fine new festival hall, andholidayed with minor European royalty. But he was himself of solidly middle-class origin, theson of a Lowestoft dentist, and often seemed to care very little about social status, just as longas his orderly days allowed for hours of composition and music-making. He seemed averse toformal politics, yet his life was constituted by unavoidably political gestures: his pacifism, hisdeparture to the United States on the eve of the Second World War, the themes of many of his operas, his friendship with Soviet musicians like Rostropovich and Shostakovich, and hishomosexuality, calmly professed in his long, stable relationship with Peter Pears, mostly in atime of legal prohibition.