The reputation of one of England's finest composers has been indelibly stained by his refusal to fight in the Second World War
I was never indifferent to Benjamin Britten, but it took Tony Palmer’s magnificent film about him — A Time There Was, which I saw on its first broadcast in 1979 — to bring home to me that for all his contradictions, difficulties and, in one or two respects, absurdities, Britten was an unqualified genius. He was a difficult man. The tolerance of his spiteful caprice about people, his social climbing and his excessive (though, I am sure, innocent) interest in pubescent boys all requires great moral force. But the main problem I have always had with him is his pacifism; and the more I think about it, the harder it is.
There is cause to think about it again, not just as this is Britten’s centenary year (he would have been 100 on St Cecilia’s Day) but because Mr Palmer has released a new 140-minute documentary on the composer, Nocturne, now out on DVD. I have rarely seen such a profoundly troubling film. Palmer is a master, and this is his masterpiece. With superb performances of parts of Britten’s darker and more troubling works, Nocturne presents Britten’s pacifism as the guiding star of his whole creative life, which I think is fair. I would certainly put it as an influence at least equal with Britten’s Heimat — Suffolk and the sea — and with his homocentric interests, which became more obvious in his works as he aged, notably in his operas. Palmer shows great respect for Britten’s feelings about war, and couches that sensitivity both in photography of unusual beauty, and more obvious, searing references to the Nazi death camps — Britten played the piano in Belsen, after the liberation — and to the continuing, ghastly loss of life through war commemorated until recently by the people of Wootton Bassett, as yet more dead brave young men were brought home from Afghanistan through their town.
It is always dangerous to challenge, or to make assumptions, about the motivations of others: but Britten’s pacifist stance in 1939 invites one to do so. Rather like Wagner’s repellent feelings about Jews, it requires an admirer of the music to try to understand the motivation of the composer in the philosophical dimension of his life. And this, in the case of Britten’s refusal to fight in 1939, can leave a taste too unpleasant for all but the most ardent enthusiast to bear.
To a young man growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, war must have seemed the ultimate absurdity. We apparently fought the Great War — according to glib historians — to stop something called “German hegemony in Europe”, something that now, 95 years after the Armistice, has been accomplished by other means. It was the most pointless war imaginable, fought with tactics that did more to cheapen human life than any other moral disaster in history. Men physically broken by bullets or shrapnel, weakened by gas attacks, blinded and emasculated were but the living testimony to the wickedness of that war; 750,000 names carved on British war memorials alone spoke for the dead. Anyone in the early 1930s who thought more of that would be a good idea would have been certifiably mad.
However, such considerations had to change after the rise of Hitler, whose approach to German hegemony and to the human race made Wilhelm II’s look benign and enlightened. It is hard to make a case for the Second Reich being a threat to Britain in 1914. It was a war we could, and should, have sat out. That option did not exist in 1939. It was by the grace of God and a shoal of public- and grammar-school boys in Spitfires and Hurricanes that we were not overrun after the Fall of France. Some public-school boys, however, chose to head for the safety of America: Auden and Isherwood, followed by Britten and Pears, who came back in 1942. I suspect none would have been much use in the Armed Forces, though Pears’s cricketing ability showed some martial spirit. But that wasn’t the point. This was total war, for the first time in our history. Teenagers who were little more than children were making a contribution; so too were women, all putting their lives in danger. Of course it would have been a catastrophic loss had Britten been killed, just as it was when George Butterworth was scythed down in 1916. But for someone who had already achieved the renown he had to run up the white flag, and run off, was a shocking error of judgment.
I have no idea whether he was a coward. He certainly wasn’t as brave as Michael Tippett, who believed in pacifism so strongly that, unlike Britten, he refused to do any war work at all, and went to prison. Perhaps he was stupid, as some men of high principle are. Hitler had already demonstrated — and this was well known in Britain in 1939 — that leftists and homosexuals had no place in his Reich, and could expect persecution and, quite possibly, death. Had Britain been invaded, where would that have left Britten? We must expect he believed in the right to practise his own sexuality (even though it was illegal at the time) and to hold whatever political opinions he chose. What would have happened to him had the Nazis come? Why did he consider this a battle that was best left to others, including women and children, to fight, while he went off to be adopted by some rich and kind Americans?
I wonder, when he went to Belsen with Yehudi Menuhin in 1945, and saw what the tyranny he could not bring himself to oppose had done, whether the superiority of his status as a sublime artist meant very much to him. He was deeply moved by what he saw there. I wish I could have the chance to ask him exactly why. Life cannot always be separated from art. I feel no excuses can be made for him: he was wrong to go away for those three years, with his country and its culture in mortal danger, and his decision to do so must be an everlasting stain on his otherwise massive reputation.