BENJAMIN BRITTEN'S public profile is in poor shape, three years ahead of the centenary of his birth in 1913. Mauled by prurient biographers and television documentarists, the most successful composer of operas in the English language stands accused of paedophilia, pro-Sovietism and disloyalty to friends, whom he referred to as "corpses" after they were dumped. Britten, according to the prevalent view, was a small-minded, provincial music maker, concerned chiefly with his own advancement.
His defenders argue that he was a shy man who took necessary precautions to protect his life with Peter Pears, a tenor, at a time when homosexuals were routinely prosecuted and jailed. No famous person who was gay could give his or her trust readily to the hordes of conductors, directors and fixers who cling to a good composer like barnacles to a flagship. Britten did his best. Following the hero of his 1945 operatic masterpiece, "Peter Grimes", he settled in the fishing village of Aldeburgh, his back to the sea beneath lowering skies. He stands besieged by his own metaphors.
Yet his midlife letters—this is the fifth of six projected volumes—reveal quite a different man. In much of his correspondence, Britten is warm, addressing his friends as "my dear" or "dearest" and showing detailed concern for their tribulations. He can be catty but is preternaturally outgoing. This is when he branched out into Japanese Noh-plays ("Curlew River") and Shakespearean drama ("A Midsummer Night's Dream"). Amid these ethereal ambitions, there is also triviality.
When Robert Graves, whom he has never met, invites him to compose a Broadway musical that Jerome Robbins wants to stage, Britten is "flattered" and "extremely interested". Reading "Song for Sheba", he reluctantly withdraws, but he takes pains to assure Graves that "it has every ingredient needed for a terrific success" and recommends him to approach Malcolm Arnold, "a brilliant composer who writes highly colourful music". This is not a man of closed mind or mean spirit. He acts with due decency while preserving sound judgment (the musical never got made).
Musical myths are sharply deflated by some of these letters. Britten and Pears are supposed to have slunk out of the 1968 premiere at Aldeburgh of Harrison Birtwistle's ultra-violent opera, "Punch and Judy". Birtwistle himself has no recollection of such an exit and, while he may have disliked the opera, Britten's letters show both sympathy and support for the difficult young composer, and he helps him obtain a study fellowship in America.
Amid musical sectarianism, with serial theorems and electronic squeaks the fashionable norms, Britten maintained a benign neutrality, showing an unexpected interest in "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" by Pierre Boulez and commissioning works of broad diversity for his Aldeburgh festival. He favoured Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze and, most of all, the nervous Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Britten knew that Shostakovich and his Russian satellites, Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, dissented from Soviet policies and postures on the world stage that he supported. Politics, however, was not allowed to intrude on friendship. His affection for Shostakovich was symbiotic. The Russian declared himself speechless with admiration for Britten's pacifist "War Requiem", which the commissars deplored. Britten regretted that he was "only too aware of where it falls short of the idea, which is so close to my heart." Born just before the first world war, and self-exiled during the second, he would accept anything to avert another global conflict.
When Britten heard a Mahler symphony, he would drop an affectionate note to the composer's widow in California; when old friends died he found exactly the right things to say to their spouses. Alongside these civilities, he could also terminate long friendships in a single sentence.
After 25 years he dismissed Boosey & Hawkes as his publishers and when the Earl of Harewood, one of his most devoted and useful enthusiasts, ended his first marriage, Britten's response was chilling. Noting that "our paths have recently gone in different directions", he told Harewood that "I often think of you with admiration and affection". Within the next 50 words, he banned him from Aldeburgh and sacked him as festival president. Even in politics, such ruthlessness is rare.
Yet there are more sides to Benjamin Britten than random cruelties, some of which may have been fired by the lurking Pears. Britten was a bigger man and a more important composer than his present reputation suggests. Three years until his centenary is time enough for a fresh biographer to put the record straight.