Britten’s Endgame

Although I’ve listened to his music a lot and visited the house he shared with Peter Pears a few months ago, I’ve never quite connected with the music of Benjamin Britten as I have with that of Bach, Schubert, and many other composers including modern ones like Shostakovich and Bartok. But John Bridcut’s film of the end of Britten’s life may have provided the connection I’ve needed. As I’m writing this I’m listening to Britten’s exquisite setting of William Blake’s The Sick Rose.

Bridcut’s thesis (probably too strong a word) is that Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, killed him–and killed him in a wonderfully poetic way. When he came to write Death in Venice Britten was fretting about fading powers and that he was stuck in a musical past, using traditional keys and melodies. Luciano Berio, we were old in the film, was very rude about his music.


Britten may have chosen Death in Venice, perhaps unconsciously, because it allowed him to “confront his demons.” It also allowed him to celebrate Venice, a city he loved, and Mahler, a composer he admired. His demons were his fading powers, death, and his paedophilia. As surely almost everybody knows, Death in Venice is the story of an aging composer who visits Venice, becomes infatuated with a young boy, ignores signals that the city has an outbreak of cholera, and so dies.

In Britten’s opera the boy, Tadzio, never speaks but dances a ballet with other boys. The ballet was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, another prominent homosexual when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, and there was an idea that the boys would dance naked. This didn’t happen, which all of those in the film agreed was a good idea, but they did dance in loin cloths. During the making of the opera Britten became infatuated with David Hemmings, who played Tadzio and subsequently reached his moment of fame in Blow Up. An elderly Hemmings, who looked like a heavy drinker, said in the film that Britten had never touched him and was like a father to him even though they are said to have slept in the same bed. Britten seemed to have had a similar relationship with other boys, and, highly conscious of our current climate where abuse seemed to have happened in almost every set of circumstances where adult men supervised children, we, the viewers, almost expected a revelation of greater intimacy. The possibility was left hanging, but I reflected on how paedophilia is the evil of our age when it was the glory of Ancient Greece, arguably the finest flowering ever of humanity.

The film addressed as well the love between Britten and Pears being so obvious at a time when such love was illegal. They “adored” each other, and Pears’s clear tenor voice was a lifelong inspiration for Britten. The part of Aschenbach, the composer in Death in Venice, was written for Pears, and Pears made a great hit in the part touring the world while Britten was dying. Britten was faithful, but Pears was a philanderer. Policemen came to the door at times, but neither was ever prosecuted–and, as Stephen Lock ( a Britten devotee who works in the Britten archives) puts it, they had the blessing of the Queen Mother, rendering them immune from prosecution and gossip.

Death in Venice killed Britain in that he put off an operation he needed for a leaking heart valve. By the time he had the operation his heart muscle was severely weakened, meaning he wouldn’t last long whatever happened with the operation. If he’d had it done earlier the prognosis may have been better. The operation was not very successful: the new valve leaked, and Britten had a stroke, meaning that he couldn’t play the piano. The cardiologist, Michael Petch, who looked after Britten in his finals years, came across as cold-hearted in the film. Nobody seemed to have told Britten that he was dying, although it soon became obvious. The best thing to come out of the operation was the down to earth, cheerful Scottish nurse who left the hospital to look after Britten. She brought a jolly practicality to what seemed a rarified, neurotic, cold atmosphere. Everybody but her, and presumably Pears, seemed to be frightened of Britten.

Britten died well–in his own home in the arms of Pears, having said goodbye to each of the people he loved most.

And he shouldn’t have feared fading powers. As one modern composer said, fading powers to Britten was taking a whole afternoon to write a beautiful song when many composers work for days and produce nothing. He worked to the end, and some of his final works, Phaedra and the third string quartet, both infused with death, are some his finest. The end of the string quartet and the final bars of Death in Venice, “the most sublime music he ever wrote,” are both accounts of dying.

I’ve already listened to the string quartet, various songs, and Britten and Pears singing Schubert’s Winterreise (right now, indeed), and I must see Death in Venice before I die.


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