Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten is often credited with having reawakened British opera, which had lain dormant for two centuries. He could equally be recognized for awakening the contemporary operatic world to the hitherto untapped dramatic potential within the subject of homosexuality and male relationships. He was no doubt constrained by the law. Homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in the U.K. in 1967, at which point Britten was fifty-four years old and within a decade of his death. He was also constrained by the sense of opprobrium that was still standard fare in polite, if hypocritical, society. He came of age in the 1930s, inescapably aware of the not-so-distant events surrounding the trial, imprisonment and death of Oscar Wilde.

Britten’s revolution was a subtle one, and he accomplished much of it by writing in code. The written word lends itself to the use of code. Code assuredly has preliterate roots, but the growth of alphabets and the increasing sophistication of languages nurtured a corresponding development in coded messaging. Literature and poetry are replete with them. The roman à clef and the nom de plume are code in another form. In complex human society, one word can be used to mean another.

Music also has codes and hidden meanings. Modern research has discovered that even Plato utilized musically constructed codes. But music, it is often said, starts where words stop. It is an inarticulate art. Music need not have any meaning at all, and if it does, it is implicit. Music affects us by perception of the senses, which then provoke emotional reactions. Subsequently we may attempt to reduce these feelings and perceptions to words and ideas. We grasp literature intellectually through words and ideas, which stimulate us in many ways, including provoking emotions. Music can be implicit but not explicit, whereas the word can be both.

Code as such is therefore a very small element in classical music. Composers often amuse themselves with notation in various guises or employ a type of “text painting” by using exclusively musical means to illustrate or parallel a text. Music has developed an enormous evocative power, whether describing landscapes, grand emotions, nature, forests, oceans or mountains.

But musical code is different. It is a murky subject, strewn with conjecture, elusive meanings and speculation. Musical code would suggest using notes that imply one thing to imply another. It could only be effective when the composer (even in absentia), the performer and the listener simultaneously share the same wavelength.

There are many examples, increasingly so in the twentieth century. Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is just what the title implies. The Expressionist composers, Alban Berg in particular, employed code. For example his Lyric Suite is so named because he took a love theme from Alexander Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and used it to send a message to a secret love.

In the 1930s, as the political situation worsened in German-speaking countries, it became more common for composers who fell under Nazi suppression to use code. Viktor Ullmann, who wrote over twenty compositions while interned at the transit concentration camp Terezín, used it extensively to communicate with his Czech-Jewish compatriots, avoiding interference by the Nazi authorities. The String Trio of Gideon Klein (Ullmann’s younger colleague in Terezín) is purportedly written entirely in code. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, in his opposition to the Third Reich, withdrew from public life and elected to write in code for himself and his friends.

But the most significant examples of musical code in the twentieth century are to be found in the works of two of its greatest composers: Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. Both men felt the necessity for adopting code for many of their works, though the circumstances leading to that choice were dissimilar. The story of their friendship and mutual admiration across the barrier of the Cold War is an extraordinary one.

From every perspective, I consider Britten one of the great composers of the twentieth century. He was fluent in all major genres: opera, church, choral, vocal and instrumental music (both symphonic and chamber music). His compositional technique was strongly disciplined, his musical language distinctive and his mastery of instrumentation flawless. He had an unfailing ability to marry word and tone. Text and music enhance each other, inspire each other, and interact with a dynamic chemistry. Rare are composers who have successfully transformed great works of English literature into operas. Who else has effectively set any of William Shakespeare’s plays in the original, or Henry James, Thomas Mann, Herman Melville or Guy de Maupassant, let alone all of them?

In the words of Sir Peter Pears, the eminent English tenor and Britten’s lifelong partner, “With his 16 operas, by eighteenth-century standards Benjamin Britten was a moderate producer. By the standard of the twentieth century, his own century, he was incredibly fecund. He could be called the only British professional composer—and yet how much more!”

His thematic spectrum was wide, but he returned consistently to those themes that were important to him: pacifism, the betrayal of innocence, injustice and cruelty, the tragedy and senselessness of war and aggression. He was not afraid to portray the ugly, the morally ambiguous character of the human condition; nor did he hesitate to defend the outsider.


Britten and Shostakovich

The great friendship that developed between Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich is meaningful on many levels. They were close contemporaries, lived to view the damage of two World Wars from their different vantage points and, philosophically, they shared much common ground on social issues.

Both highly disciplined and seemingly endlessly fertile, they composed a staggering volume of music across a range of genres. I would cite both men above most others in their ability to compose, orchestrate and notate their intentions in a way that is virtually impossible to misunderstand. Inspired and creative, they were complete and thorough craftsmen.

To achieve a good performance of either of these composers’ music, an “interpreter” (a term I use guardedly and with a certain amount of distrust) need simply ensure that their intentions are served and rendered accurately with the feelings they inspire. One needn’t know a thing about their lives to react viscerally to a performance of their music. And yet . . .

Interestingly, significant facets of their lives and music remained hidden from view during their lifetimes and have only comparatively recently become open subjects and, increasingly, the focus of much historical-interpretive discussion. One of these facets concerns us here. That facet is code.

Shostakovich, from January 29, 1936 onwards, lived a life of fear. That day he read the now-infamous article (“Chaos Instead of Music”) in Pravda condemning his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (after it had enjoyed nearly two years of phenomenal success), and until the day he died he was pressured by the Soviet regime, well beyond Stalin’s death in 1953. His very being became politicized and was never to be left in peace again. He could not speak his mind in public (hardly even in private!), nor could his music touch on any “unacceptable” subject. And when he premiered an important new work, he was expected to explain it in a politically correct manner. In Shostakovich’s scores, the several paragraphs often published in the introductions were filled with Communist Party platitudes to placate the authorities. When asked what a composition “meant,” he invariably equivocated or said it didn’t mean anything at all.

These “intros” were decoys, pabulum for ready digestion by the apparatchiks. The real message, be it musical, personal, political, visionary or one of desperation, was in the music. Whatever notions the greater public was to form about the “meaning” of Shostakovich’s music began to change only as information, narratives and personal stories trickled out after the composer’s death. Today, the discourse is about powerful emotional messages reflecting the composer’s silent but resolute resistance to the Stalinist regime and about his life of fear and isolation. He was determined to keep the Russian soul alive in the twentieth century during, in his words, the “Stalinist occupation.”

Benjamin Britten lived in those same turbulent times but on the Western side of the Cold War divide, enjoying freedom of speech and most civil liberties: the right to dissent (he was a conscientious objector as far back as 1930s) and a near complete lack of censorship. Britten could choose to write what he wanted; Shostakovich couldn’t. Despite all of this, Britten chose code as well. In his choice of subjects (primarily, though not exclusively, of the operas) and their treatment, he was one of the first to deal with homosexuality and homoerotic relationships in his works.

Censorship? No, not exactly. But neither the subject nor the word homosexual could be mentioned in a theater until 1958, and, as mentioned, homosexual acts were illegal until 1967. Though Britten never doubted his orientation, he was averse to discussing it publicly.

He was equally reticent on other subjects. He disliked talking about music, his own in particular, eschewed theorizing, and rejected any and all orthodoxies, schools of composition or any systematic approach to composition. This rejection, especially of dodecaphonic music (although he freely used its devices and methods when it suited his purposes), earned him the scorn of many. He was far more outspoken on social issues, and early declared himself a supporter of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He was a conscientious objector leading up to World War II and a supporter of many left-wing social causes both before and after the war. He ended up on the wrong side of history as it pertained to World War II, and was profoundly shaken when he played in a concentration camp with Yehudi Menuhin at the end of the war. Despite criticism he remained a pacifist until the end.

Unlike his Russian friend and colleague, Britten, who was not forced to stay quiet, preferred to remain discreet and private about his sexuality. And yet, out of preference, inner need or a combination of both, he chose operatic subjects with which he could present stark emotional dramas surrounding homosexuality, whether these themes were central or subsidiary, latent or manifest. Britten explored a subject that had been off-limits to the operatic world until he confronted it.

In the late nineteenth century, ugliness gradually was recognized as a legitimate inspiration to a new aesthetic that could recharge art, theater and music. It became acceptable and even fashionable to portray cruelty and ugliness (whether in appearance or behavior) with graphic clarity. On the opera stage, Richard Strauss set off the bomb with Salome and Elektra in the first decade of the twentieth century. Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker followed.

Britten quietly accomplished a similar revolution not fifty years later. His was a complex and sometimes contradictory nature. He espoused many left-wing social programs, enjoyed his own petit bourgeois existence, and both yearned for and spurned the attention of royalty and the aristocracy. He had an almost puritanical work ethic and a religious orientation. But despite his lifelong devotion to writing church music and setting biblical subjects, Britten was, in Peter Pears’s words, “not religious in any form of the word that I know.” He was an admirer of Jesus Christ and his teachings more than an adherent to a life of faith. And he had his own deeper secrets as well, particularly in the form of yearnings for adolescent youths. By most contemporary accounts this attraction was the focus of his sexuality. It is not really known how much, if at all, he acted on this.

W. H. Auden, by his example, had influenced Britten and Pears to go to America along with other artists and writers who were conscientious objectors. Auden’s powerful personality had dominated Britten for a while, and the eventual rupture in their friendship was inevitable. At the moment Britten and Pears were returning to England in 1942, Auden wrote him a letter. He lectured the younger composer on “the dangers that beset you as a man and an artist . . . your attraction to thin-as-a-board-juveniles, i.e., to the sexless and innocent, is a symptom of [Britten’s preference of Bourgeois Convention and technical skill]. Your denial of the demands of disorder is responsible for your ill health . . . You see Benjy dear, you are always tempted . . . to build yourself a warm nest of love . . . by playing the lovable talented little boy . . . If you are really to develop to your full stature you will have . . . to suffer, and make others suffer . . . you will have to be able to say what you never yet have had the right to say.”

The friendship was essentially over after that, but Auden’s darts were not wide of the mark. All added together, Britten had his reasons for his lack of candor. His operas needed to be and not to be, to say and not to say. That those operas that enjoyed great success did so without provoking a great reaction to their homoerotic implications is due equally to his nuanced dramatic-musical presentation and the public’s own reticence to see those implications. Britten’s great works achieve a universality that ultimately explains why they are still vibrant today, why we are performing them, celebrating them, and why we are discussing them, and will in the future. Britten’s big lifelong themes— justice and injustice, outraged innocence, violence and pacifism, the individual’s struggle against society—were so well matched to his compositional and dramatic genius that the world has appreciated them for several generations, while largely ignoring many homoerotic themes.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937)

Among Shostakovich’s most popular works, the “meaning” of the Fifth Symphony has long been a matter of debate. This work was to be the composer’s rehabilitation after the Lady Macbeth episode. On the surface, a type of mea culpa, he referred to it as “a Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.” He proceeded to write a nearly perfect work; its musical construction and inspiration throughout have rightfully gained it a permanent place in concert halls around the world. Its finale is an apotheosis worthy of Gustav Mahler, suggesting a great spiritual victory over equally great tribulations. “Bright, clear, joyous, optimistic and life affirming” were the words of a leading critic. The symphony came to the West understood as such, and the composer viewed as a functionary of the Party.

Or is the finale actually the opposite: the crushing of the individual under the Soviet regime’s machinery? The slow movement, one of the most powerful in the repertory, was, by some accounts, grasped by many at the world premiere, and silently understood to express the immense spiritual suffering of Russia in the Soviet era. The symphony can be interpreted from diametrically opposing viewpoints. I would give my unqualified support, of course, to this second view—if it weren’t for another extraordinary story.

Shostakovich had fallen in love with a young woman and would have divorced his wife and offered marriage to the young lady. She declined and subsequently left for Spain and married a documentary film producer who was filming the Spanish Civil War. His last name was Karmen. Themes from Georges Bizet’s Carmen are interwoven throughout the Fifth Symphony; the great “apotheosis” is taken from the opera’s “Habanera.” Elena, the young woman, had a nickname: “Lala.” In solfège, “la” is the note A Natural. It is first sounded and repeated three times at the beginning of the symphony and, at the end of the symphony, is obsessively repeated two hundred fifty-two times!

So, which code is it: the political allegory (which one?), or the personal love story or none of the above? It is an enigma worthy of James Joyce.

Peter Grimes (1945)

The evolution of Peter Grimes’s character through the course of Britten’s collaboration with Peter Pears, Montagu Slater and Ronald Duncan (the librettist of his subsequent opera The Rape of Lucretia), can be traced, to some degree, from various extant earlier versions of the libretto. Floating in the background of the genesis of Britten’s first great opera were the influences of E. M. Forster (whose article on George Crabbe’s “The Borough” first attracted the attention of Britten and Pears during their stay in southern California), W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. It reveals the gradual transition from the specific homosexual orientation of its protagonist to a broader context.

Consider the following statements: Pears, having heard some of the new score, wrote to Britten, “The more I hear of it, the more I feel the queerness is unimportant and doesn’t really exist in the music (or at any rate obtrude) so it mustn’t do so in words. P.G. is an introspective, an artist, a neurotic, his real problem is expression, self-expression.” This can be compared with Britten’s own statement about the focus of the work: “[A] central feeling for us was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own [Pears and Britten’s] situation.” Musicologist Philip Brett writes, “The remark was addressed to the social situation in which the two found themselves—pacifism, in this instance as on other occasions in Britten’s life, doing double duty as a controversial but mentionable position for still unspeakable homosexuality.”

E. M. Forster observed there was “no crime on Peter’s part except what is caused by the far greater crimes committed against him by society.”

Time magazine quotes Britten in the February 1948 cover story that preceded the New York premiere: Grimes was “a subject very close to my heart—the struggle of the individual against the masses.” And tinted with Britten’s view of social issues is an accompanying statement: “The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” If Peter is cruel, he is so because the Borough is cruel. If he is violent with the apprentices, it is because the system allowed him to be.

Almost one hundred years before this, in 1851, approximately the time of Crabbe’s “Borough,” Giuseppe Verdi, through the mouth of Rigoletto, hurls the following at his audience: “Odio a voi, cortigiani schernitori . . . Se iniquo son, per cagion vostra è solo!” (“I hate you, scoffing courtiers . . . If I am wicked, it is only because of you!”)

Music has the unique power to affect our emotional state, moods, and impressions instantaneously. In the course of any opera, music holds the cards, deals the deck and determines the play and its outcome. If we are sensitive to feeling the music, not just listening to it, our sympathies and antipathies can be cast in any direction. There is no question that Grimes’s music captures and maintains our sympathies throughout the opera despite his gruff character and regardless of his actions. Peter is the outsider par excellence and Britten’s first great example of what will become a recurring theme in his operas.

Britten abhorred violence and empathized with its victims. His women often are casualties of cruelty. Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress who tries to befriend and help Grimes, is joined by an extraordinary threesome—Auntie, whose pub houses a brothel, and two of her “nieces,” who are in her employ. When the men of the town take off in their vigilante posse to Grimes’s hut, the women are scorned and left behind. The ensuing quartet is one of the most powerful moments in the opera.

This quartet and Ellen Orford’s “school mum ways” create an overall positive image of women, particularly in Britten’s view, as caring, compassionate and comforting caretakers of home and hearth. This theme will be developed in the next opera, The Rape of Lucretia. The virtue of the Roman aristocratic protagonist is unassailable, and yet she interiorizes the shame and culpability for being raped and chooses suicide. Both Grimes and Lucretia have so ingested the judgment and condemnation of their social environments that they mete out their own severe justice. Despite her noble rank, from the moment of the rape, Lucretia, in her own mind, becomes an outsider. Victim both of rape and her society’s unjust and unbalanced sexual code, her suicide is a double tragedy.

The abuse of innocence is another Britten theme. Grimes is not guiltless, but his victimization by the townspeople qualifies him in this category nonetheless. It cannot be established that he was responsible for the death of one boy, and we see the circumstances of a second’s accidental death. It might be more just to place the blame for this second young death at the doorstep of the townspeople themselves. The “outraged” innocence of the two dead apprentices is beyond question.

Pears further remarked, “Grimes is not a hero nor is he an operatic villain. He is not a sadist, nor a demonic character, and the music quite clearly shows that. He is very much a weak person who, being at odds with the society in which he finds himself, tries to overcome it and, in doing so offends against the conventional code, is classed by society as a criminal, and destroyed as such. . . . There are plenty of Grimeses around still, I think.”

All these statements taken together add up to an indictment of society. Peter Grimes is a powerful tale of the plight of the outsider. The status of any homosexual male in England at the time was to be a man who finds himself “at odds with the society in which he finds himself.” Britten, like Grimes, “is an introspective, an artist.” Britten and Pears together felt “the individual against the crowd with ironic overtones for our [Britten and Pears’s] own situation.”

For decades after its brilliant international success, there was no widespread consideration given to the notion that Peter Grimes is also the story of a homosexual outcast. That nearly universal silence helped to obscure a key element in this story. Now, in 2013, I find it impossible not to discuss it. In staging the work today, interpretive choices can and must be made, but the question cannot be ignored.


As Britten’s code masks homosexuality, so Shostakovich’s masked just about anything that could give the appearance of sedition. Britten reacted to societal pressures, an oppressive criminal code and an inner censor. He still had the great advantage to live in a country with freedom of speech. The Soviet system suppressed all dissent, and consequently Shostakovich, after the closing of Lady Macbeth, abandoned any further thoughts of writing for the theater to the opera world’s incalculable loss. He set songs, wrote some cantatas and choral works, but he did so with great care. If hidden messages might be there, they were so subtle that they could always be denied.

Under these circumstances, it is no accident that Shostakovich wrote fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets. The lack of text gave him freedom. His implied messages and inner feelings could be expressed abstractly, unfettered to a text that in the end had to have some identifiable meaning. Britten and Shostakovich wrote copiously in all genres. But it is instructive to note that considering the operas, church parables, church music, War Requiem, and song cycles, there is far more of Britten’s music with voice than without. The opposite can be said of Shostakovich. The parameters governing his choices were tight. He had to write music in which “viewpoint” or possible “interpretation” could not be deemed offensive by the regime, forcing him into a corner from which he could plausibly deny any meaning at all. The absence of “the word,” therefore, was a necessary companion. Thanks to his genius, he was able to create a seemingly infinite universe in that tight space.

Classical music and opera grew over four centuries in a world that was both political and private. These two realms often came into conflict with one another. The kings and royal patrons of composers, the emerging governments of the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church, the aristocratic sponsors all could and did exert influence on the subject matter of any music with a text. Verdi struggled incessantly with censors who had recognized that the power of his music could influence the populace. But overall, there was both an expectation and a tradition (and to some degree it is in the nature of things) that vocal and operatic music would deal primarily with the personal realm. Whether melodrama of the Italian operatic theater, lieder with the yearning of German poets, the rapturous emotionality of Tchaikovsky—it was all about love and personal feelings. The political world was there, but apart.

In the twentieth century, however, politics, totalitarian regimes and social upheaval so heavily affected the world, they became impossible to ignore. The young Britten already reacted to the Spanish Civil War, espoused pacifism and nonviolence and wrote music about it. The political world inflicted itself onto the artistic world with a force hitherto unseen. The dimensions of cruelty displayed by the twentieth-century authoritarian regimes had never been seen before. Britten and Shostakovich, along with many others, reacted accordingly and abandoned the relative safety within the realm of conventional melodrama.

Albert Herring (1949)

Shostakovich had a sharp sense of satire and parody. A combination of cynicism and dark humor served his muse well. Britten preferred serious drama. But on those occasions when he chose to write a comedy or a farcical scene, he was second to none. Like Verdi and Puccini, who almost exclusively wrote melodramas, Britten produced one great comedy, Albert Herring (unless one considers A Midsummer Night’s Dream as such). The work’s hilarious and endearing portrait of small-town life in Britain can be taken at face value, without looking for inner meaning. Despite its very specific location, the work achieves universality through its treatment of a rite of passage that we have all known: that defining and often symbolic moment when we pass from adolescence to the sexuality of adulthood.

The opera is very funny, but not a farce. Like most great comedies, an underlying seriousness raises it to a higher level. Beneath its mirth and delightful humanity is a stinging critique of the mores of Victorian England, which still were operative in the 1940s. Young Albert finally rebels against his mother, a widowed grocer in an imaginary small market town in 1900. It satirizes the town’s leading lights. It dissects its social stratification, from Lady Billows, “an elderly autocrat” who leads a one-woman crusade to safeguard the town’s “morals,” down to three working-class children.

This unlikely young hero cuts himself loose from his mother’s apron strings and defies the entire town on the eve of his ceremonial crowning as “May King.” His night of debauchery is also his achievement, part defiance and part affirmation of his new sexual identity. He comes of age after “a nightmare example of drunkenness, dirt and worse . . .” Albert’s triumph is in defining himself as he is, or wishes to be, not as what society and his mother have told him he should be.

The comedy is replete with social criticism and now familiar themes: the outsider, the victim, the tension between the individual and society. The delightfully drawn village types could have walked right out of Peter Grimes’s waterside borough and into Albert’s inland town. Lady Billows, the Mayor, the Rector, Miss Wordsworth, the Schoolmistress, and the Police Chief are not that different from Mrs. Sedley, Bob Boles and the Rector and, with some dissimilarities, Ellen Orford, the schoolmistress. Albert has the encouragement of the self-confident Sid, as Grimes had Captain Balstrode. Albert reveals to us (when he is alone) his pent-up frustration, resentment and pain playing the role of mama’s boy. He has been under her domination and now he rebels and determines to define himself.

That Albert’s raucous night included a roll in the hay with some local girl can be accepted at face value. It was taken for granted for decades that that was the case. But there is considerable internal evidence to suggest Albert is “coming out” and affirming his homosexual feelings. Neither viewpoint can be proven or disproven but, as with Peter Grimes, it cannot be ignored. Perhaps productions should pose the tantalizing question and not give an answer. Albert Herring is a comedy because it ends happily, and Peter Grimes a tragedy because it does not. But the inner dynamics are remarkably similar.

Billy Budd (1951)

Billy Budd, the protagonist of Herman Melville’s novella, is a victim of another sort. Both his physical and spiritual beauty exude a positive energy that emits rays like the sun. He, like Lucretia, is impeccable in all aspects of his being. Captain Vere and the sergeant-at-arms Claggart are the darker side of this story. Billy, who stammers, unintentionally kills Claggart, by punching him out of sheer frustration when Claggart spreads lies, suggesting that Billy has conspired with the enemy. The Captain could pardon Billy but doesn’t, and allows him to hang.

Claggart’s character could be explained in the words with which Samuel Coleridge described Iago, a man with “motiveless malignity.” E. M. Forster, who wrote much of the libretto, gave him the equivalent of Iago’s Credo, which he termed “my most important piece of writing . . . I want passion, love constricted, perverted, poisoned . . . a sexual discharge gone evil.”

Claggart tells his own story:

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I ne’er encountered you! Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity in which I was born. There I found peace of a sort; there I established an order such as reigns in Hell. But alas! The lights shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers. O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I had never seen you.


Having seen you, what choice remains to me? None, none! I am doomed to annihilate you; I am vowed to your destruction. I will wipe you off the face of the earth, off this tiny fragment of earth, off this ship where fortune has led you.

At this point Claggart imagines what he will not live to see, but the audience will—Billy’s execution. Claggart’s desire for Billy cannot be fulfilled, and therefore he must destroy him. The librettist intended this all to be specifically and passionately sexual. He was disappointed on first hearing Britten sing this at the piano. He made his comments, and was later admonished not to again. The sensitive composer did not appreciate such criticism.

Britten may or may not have shared Forster’s view, but what comes out is diabolical. Perhaps seeing the big picture: Billy is the sacrificial lamb (Christ); Claggart, the incarnation of evil, cruelty and alienation (Satan); and Vere, the human authority figure who is, in reality, the ineffectual father figure.

The Vere/Billy relationship is similar to Abraham and Isaac. Britten liked the subject of this Biblical father and son, first writing a Canticle, and then quoting it in the Offertorium of the War Requiem. God’s Angel releases Abraham and suggests a lesser sacrifice. But, in the War Requiem, Wilfred Owen’s antiwar poetry turns that upside down and puts it thus: “But Abram would not so, and slew the boy, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Captain Vere and the potentates of Europe betray innocence and let it be destroyed.

The Turn of the Screw (1954)

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s story serves up a savory plate to Britten: on the surface a ghost story in a haunted Victorian estate in the English countryside, it plumbs the depths of the human psyche. It poses questions of good and evil, truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy that it purposefully leaves unanswered. It wades into treacherous waters in evoking the sexuality of children and the questionable role of adult predators. After the immensity of Billy Budd, he returns to the chamber opera, of which this is the third and final example. The close-up, the portrait, the size of the drawing room drama, the claustrophobic interior are preferred to the wide shot of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.

Britten succeeds not only in perfectly transforming this novel into theatrical form, but also in maintaining the emblematic ambiguity of Henry James. Whether the ghosts are real or figments of the Governess’s and the children’s imaginations is a fundamental question and left unanswered in the novel. Britten decided that, given that the two ghosts must sing, they must be real. That uncertainty gone, he strove nevertheless to distill “ambiguity” in some other way. He accomplishes this by peering into each of the protagonists’ souls, probing their motives and the very essence of their character. Is Peter Quint a child abuser, a corruptor of young souls? Or has he been summoned by the emerging self-awareness of the young and precociously gifted Miles? Is the Governess a staunch defender of morality or a young woman who displaces her unfulfilled sexuality, transfers it to the boy, and destroys him through her escalating, obsessive attention? Or was Miles “evil” to begin with, infecting the Governess?

It is not impossible to conjure up the image of young Benji (Britten’s childhood nickname) at the keyboard in the “piano” scene, playing for his mother and sisters. Did he identify himself with Miles (Britten alluded to having been sexually abused himself) or with Peter Quint, who wants to possess the young boy, soul and body? Miles and Peter Quint are two sides of a common coin. Either way, Britten’s courageous step in setting this delicate subject on the operatic stage is extraordinary.

When The Turn of the Screw was first presented in Venice, questions were barely asked. Overt presentation of this taboo subject would have no resonance for the Italian public, where neither the dominant Roman Catholic Church nor cultural machismo would tolerate it. Had Britten been any more explicit, he and the opera would have been condemned. He had to hide its true meaning with a code. That way, if pressed, the response would be easy: It is only a ghost story. (Shades of Shostakovich?)

I am skeptical of psychoanalyzing composers through their music. Biography, whether psycho- or not, is fascinating, interesting and informative. It is also very often irrelevant. In art, literature and music, it is not the sources, muses or background that matter but the final product. The work of art and the artist are distinct. None of this, code and all, would interest us if the works of Britten and Shostakovich were not first and foremost great music, which needn’t be about anything. Ultimately, it is an extraordinary collection of notes, harmony, rhythms, chords, dissonances, noises and sounds which, obeying only its own laws of organization, results in a coherent and compelling whole.

In 1954, in the deep freeze of the Cold War, The Turn of the Screw and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony were perceived, appreciated or disliked, with a mistaken or at least incomplete understanding. In the west, Russia’s great composer was broadly considered to be a musical spokesperson for the Soviet regime and its ideology. There was no doubt about his prodigious abilities, but they were often dismissed with words such as brilliant, superficial, bombastic and the like. Not until the facts of his life gradually became known after his death did that perception change. Before, few understood the irony, the satire and the parody. Few comprehended the depth of his music behind the frozen mask, its searing agony (not bombast) or its poetic genius. Few deeply appreciated his creative genius, his imagination and compositional mastery. Amongst those few was Benjamin Britten.

Gloriana (1952), written for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, caused tremendous uproar and drew indignant criticism. Britten, rather than simply delivering pomp, pageantry and flattery tailored to this joyous occasion, drew a less than flattering portrait of the Virgin Queen and her court. Was there a coded message suggesting the composer’s very ambivalent feelings about the royalty? Shades of his Russian colleague . . . ?

Shostakovich was expected to produce a celebratory homage with his Ninth Symphony (1945). Composed to celebrate Stalin and Russia’s victory in the war, the anticipation was that he would write a Ninth Symphony on the grand scale of Beethoven and Schubert. His response was to compose a short work, with a smaller orchestra than was his custom. He produced a witty, ironic opus, lacking in militaristic bombast and fulsome glorification of the Regime. Of course because there was no text, he could deny everything . . .

Even in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Britten did not entirely abandon his characteristic themes and subtle messaging. Here, his primary challenge was to write a work worthy of its Shakespearean source. Unlike all of his other operas, the libretto was not developed and transformed in the process of composition. In accepting the challenge of setting the original text and editing it for the operatic stage, Pears (who accomplished this task) succeeded in providing a coherent (yet different) organization of the opera that corresponded to Britten’s very clear notion of its architecture. It contains only a single line that was not Shakespeare’s. Among the work’s multiple accomplishments, it still stands for many as the most successful operatic rendition of any original Shakespearean text. It fuses that text with music in such a way that neither overwhelms the other and tribute is rendered to both.

Britten once again digs deeply into elusive and tantalizing terrain. The sexually ambiguous voice of a countertenor for Oberon, King of the Fairies, fixes the audience’s awareness that the conflict between him and his Queen Tytania is over possession of a little boy. Is what Oberon reveals to, and about, the characters in the forest not a dream but a deeper reality than their everyday existence in society? Have the mysteries of that forest revealed to us the polymorphous character of erotic attraction? Or, was it just a dream?

The three church parables—Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968)—were first inspired by Japanese Noh theater. They are a subset within the Britten corpus, an exquisite fusion of theater and church sung by an all-male cast and boy sopranos. The only female character, the Mad Woman in Curlew River, is sung by a tenor. Created by Pears, this example of a sort of cross-dressing is a vocal and dramatic tour de force for the protagonist. Together with Billy Budd, there are four works with exclusively male singers. That caused some remark and resistance in 1951 with Budd (as Giacomo Puccini’s all-female Suor Angelica did thirty-five years earlier), but Britten imposed its legitimacy on our ears, and its efficacy is not questioned today.

Owen Wingrave (1971), also based on Henry James, is Britten’s most powerful, concrete avowal of pacifism. Owen defies his family, which has a multi-generational tradition of military education, by refusing to serve. The Jamesian design is reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw. Both works—part ghost story, part depth psychology—play out in a country manor in the English countryside. Both operas are constructed with an increasing sustained tension, with catastrophic endings culminating in the deaths of young men, one an adolescent and one already adult. Owen’s defiance and confrontation with his family can also be read as “coming out.” At the end, the ghosts of the past destroy the youths, and an overall sense of pessimism reigns.

As emphatically as Britten reaffirms his pacifism in Owen Wingrave, he reveals his sexuality in Death in Venice (1973). Thomas Mann’s novella, which needs no introduction, was the subject of what turned out to be Britten’s final opera. It is tempting (and most of us have fallen into the trap) to believe that the final great work of a composer is some sort of farewell to life, a testament or a summing up. Death in Venice is no exception. Britten displayed an openness that is uncharacteristic. All of the intellectual battery is brought to bear, as it is in the novella: Plato, Socrates, Nietzsche, Apollo and Dionysus. Britten increasingly employed gamelan music (an Indonesian instrumental ensemble and a complex compositional system) in the last decade and a half of his life. His use of percussion, bells, harp, celesta over those years gives us an opportunity to make connections and to imagine, if not a meaning, a spiritual zone. It evokes a world, a sense of the intangible and of proximity to transcendence. It suggests a paradisiacal existence. All of those associations have been in Britten’s music since The Turn of the Screw. But their link with Tadzio, the object of Aschenbach’s fascination, the boyish model of physical perfection and quintessential beauty, reveals retrospectively the meaning of the ever emerging mingling of spirit and sexuality in the earlier operas.

In his last stage work, it may be that Britten has given us the key to exploring the code(s) of his earlier operas. If fate had been otherwise, and had he lived a longer and healthier life, he would have gone further. There was so much more he wanted to write; above all, King Lear eluded him and, hence, us. His complex personality can be seen in many guises: pacifist and combatant, victim and culprit, outsider on the inside, amoral moralist, betrayer and betrayed, just and unjust, reticent and bold, loyal and disloyal, honest yet withholding.

The meaning of his code, or even its existence, can be argued. Such codes are for the initiated, and it is nearly impossible to penetrate them. The power of the extraordinary combination of Britten’s musical, dramatic and theatrical genius has bequeathed us a rich legacy of works, whose mysteries are deeply hidden. They cannot be, and perhaps should not be, completely unearthed. Fortunately, they are covered with music so powerful, so expertly realized, so gripping, that it will compel us to keep digging long into the future.[1]


[1]The author Philip Brett, whom I wish to acknowledge, has influenced much of my thinking on the substance of the Britten operas. His writings, contained in Music and Sexuality in Britten, make for fascinating reading.