When Britten's world was all at sea: How Billy Budd reflects the composer's own turbulent times

A full programme of Britten's works at the Proms culminates in a semi-staged performance of Michael Grandage's acclaimed Glyndebourne production of the story of an outsider fighting the establishment

In his centenary year, Benjamin Britten is proving that he can still stir up controversy. With a full programme of his works at the Proms about to culminate in Tuesday's semi-staged performance of Michael Grandage's acclaimed Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd, it would be difficult to ignore the composer's work this summer. But he continues to make news even beyond the musical arena.

Earlier this year film-maker Tony Palmer claimed that the Ministry of Defence refused to release footage for his documentary on Britten (due to air this November) because of the composer's status as a conscientious objector and perceived "flight" from Britain, with his partner, Peter Pears, on the eve of the Second World War. Meanwhile, the letters page of the East Anglian Daily Times reverberates with descriptions of Britten "cowering under his piano on the other side of the Atlantic". 

Such furore merely points up Britten's talent to disturb – as much as by his personal life and politics as by his music. It is a wonderful, and very British, paradox that our greatest composer of the 20th century should represent such a subversive outsider, yet be claimed by the very establishment which once railed against him. And nowhere is that contrast more apparent than in the creative genesis of Billy Budd, a work which premiered in 1951, but whose tense genius can be traced back to its source material: Herman Melville's elegiac and profoundly disturbing novella, Billy Budd, Sailor.

Billy Budd was the last piece of prose produced by the man responsible for the greatest American novel, Moby-Dick. Yet it had lain fallow and unpublished after Melville's death, in 1891. Only its chance discovery, in a tin bread box, lead to its rebirth as one of most celebrated British musical works of the 20th century. Published in 1924, Billy Budd had a delayed, time-bomb effect, as if it had to wait for a new age for its power to be revealed.

When Melville wrote Billy Budd, it was as a "failed" writer. Moby-Dick had sunk without trace in 1851, and he had published nothing successful since. He'd been left high and dry, reduced to the post of customs inspector on the wharves of New York. Billy Budd was his final farewell. It looked back to his glory days, to the pull of the sea and the men with whom he had shared his youthful adventures. But it was also seeped in unexpressed desire and rage against abusive power. It is those heady themes which, 60 years later, made it a such an apt vehicle for Britten's own confrontational nature.

In following Auden and Christopher Isherwood to America in 1939, Britten and Pears were seen as cowards by the British establishment. That sense of opposition sensitised the composer to the story of Billy Budd. The Handsome Sailor is described as "such a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall". He is an innocent, like the young boys to whom Britten became attached, yet from whom he kept his distance. Billy, known as Baby Budd, is the unattainable, unspoiled boy-man.

Press-ganged during the Napoleonic War, Billy is a victim of authority. As Melville writes, "there are Englishmen forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for aught we know." It was a condition that resonated with Britten, who also stood accused. "Cads and cowards," as Pears said. "Deserters, even, if you will."

But Billy's fate is sealed by the sinister figure of Claggart, the ship's "policeman", who fixates upon him, and who, in frustration, seeks to frame Billy, accusing him of fomenting mutiny on board the ship. Confronted by Claggart in front of Captain Vere, Billy lashes out against his accuser and, without meaning to, kills him.

"Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!" – Vere's dilemma is at the heart of the story. Billy is morally innocent, yet the State demands that he must die.

There are other, hitherto unexamined aspects of Billy Budd which seem to have fed Britten's work. Melville wrote his story in the 1880s, at a time when fin-de-siècle literature in Europe was at its height. There are descriptive passages in the novella which seem to speak of Wilde and Baudelaire as much as they evoke the sea literature of Joseph Conrad. Lines such as, "The bonfire in his heart made luminous the rose-tan in his cheek," could have come straight from the pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray or Salomé.

And while Melville's setting may be 1797, his underlying tone seems to prefigure Jean Genet's 1947 novel, Querelle of Brest, set in the French naval port and following the adventures of a sailor lured into a queer underworld of overweening masculinity, corrupt policemen, and sadistic power. Filmed by Fassbinder in 1982, Querelle was in turn reflected in Claire Denis's sensuous, brutal film, Beau Travail (1999), based on Billy Budd but relocated to modern French East Africa.

It is a fascinating, subcultural lineage: from Melville's "pre-homosexual" age to Britten's measured "coming out" in the mid-20th century. In his new, magisterial biography of Britten, Paul Kildea vividly describes what Cyril Connolly called "the authentic rallying cries of homo-communism", which shaped the composer's creative and personal life. Auden, Isherwood and Stephen Spender were far more world-weary than Britten, the innocent young boy from Lowestoft. Their tales of decadent Berlin prompted Britten to write cabaret-style songs such as "Funeral Blues" to Auden's dark lyrics (as revived by Mark Ravenhill at this year's Edinburgh Festival), while Isherwood introduced Britten to a British subculture, via the "notorious" Turkish baths in Jermyn Street in 1937.

And it is that awakening - Gildea speculates that Auden may have been in love with the young composer – contrasted with the tensions of ‘normal’ society, which informs Britten’s works, Billy Budd and Peter Grimes.  In both, Britten tapped into the sense of persecution and otherness; the same society that judges Billy Budd is merely a seaborne version of the small-town mentality which pursues Peter Grimes.

There is another interesting counterpoint here, too. If Auden had enlightened Britten, then Melville's mentor was the decidedly heterosexual, darkly handsome Nathaniel Hawthorne with whom he became obsessed; in an extraordinarily suggestive image, Melville wrote that Hawthorne "shoots his strong New England roots in the hot soil of my Southern soul". As Auden's modernism inspired Britten, so Hawthorne's gothic mindset infected Melville. Both were vital creative relationships but both would fracture and fall apart, as if unable to withstand their own intensity.

Hawthorne owed his sense of foreboding to the fact that one of his ancestors had been a judge at the Salem witch trials in the 17th century – the beginning of the American fear of the other, one which would resurface in post-war McCarthyism, as acerbically dramatised in Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Both Britten and Auden, who had spent formative time in mid-century America, were all too aware of this punitive era. Indeed, in the anti-gay purges of the 1950s, Britten himself would be interviewed by Scotland Yard during its investigation into high-profile homosexuals, while Melville's biographer, Newton Arvin – known as the "Scarlet Professor", and who was lover to the young Truman Capote – was accused and acquitted of being a communist, only to be hounded from office in 1960 when he was found in possession of "pornographic" semi-nude images of men.

That poisonous atmosphere is implicit in Britten's scenarios. The vengeful crowd in Peter Grimes might as well be the townsfolk in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter – in which a young woman is tyrannised for her adultery – or the prosecutors of the Salem witch trials. Is it any coincidence that it was in Britten's Suffolk that Matthew Hopkins, Cromwell's Witchfinder General, held sway, responsible for the identification of seven suspected witches in Aldeburgh alone, for which he was paid £2 by the borough?

Pursuit and persecution run through these narratives – from Salem and Portsmouth to Aldeburgh and into the present day. It is one reason why Billy Budd, with its sense of forbidden desire and affronted morality, retains its potency in a fraught 21st century. Sadly, Melville's relationship with Hawthorne fizzled out in recriminations; Auden and Britten parted in the 1940s, and barely spoke again (for all that Alan Bennett reunites them in The Habit of Art). In this light, Billy Budd becomes a melancholy coda to the two relationships. Thomas Mann called it "the most beautiful story in the world". It went on to inspire DH Lawrence, Albert Camus and CLR James, who found its utter darkness almost unbearable; Peter Ustinov filmed it in 1962, with Terence Stamp making his movie debut as a bleached-blond Billy; and Morrissey recycled the title for one of his plangent songs.

But perhaps the last words should be left to EM Forster, the opera's librettist, who introduced Britten to the story in the first place. "Melville…reaches straight back into the universal," he wrote, "to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory."

Billy Budd' is at the Proms on 27 August. There's a free pre-performance discussion by Philip Hoare at the Royal College of Music at 5.15pm broadcast on Radio 3 that evening. His book, 'The Sea Inside', is published by Fourth Estate

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'