Philip Hensher: The composer who ruined modern British music

'Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" sounds like what it is, a requiem written by a peer'
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The Independent Online

There's a reading of 20th-century British music which says that it was ruined by the modernists. You often hear that traditional composers were ignored by the BBC and by public organisations from the 1950s onwards, who instead pursued a deliberate line of promoting the avant-garde, ignoring what everyone actually wanted. In this interpretation, Sir William Glock is the arch-demon, who prevented any tonal music at all being played on the BBC during his reign there, and the victims a school of talented, traditional composers.

I've often thought that there was, indeed, a problem with British music in the post-war years, but this strikes me as a startlingly eccentric interpretation. The villain of the piece, as far as I can see, was not a high modernist at all, but someone whose fiercely pursued respectability pushed British music into a backwater from which it only slowly recovered; and he was not an experimental composer. I'm talking about Benjamin Britten.

Watching the Channel 4 documentary last week about his life and work, broadcast on the 25th anniversary of his death, I started to wonder that the programme makers could not find anyone prepared to question the assumption that Britten was The Greatest English Composer. I wondered even more when I saw as much as I could bear of their new film of his opera Owen Wingrave, a work of quite appalling fourth-rateness.

For me, the great English composers of the 20th century are Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Tippett and Birtwistle. Britten's supremacy is never questioned, but it seems to me that, unlike those great composers, his merits have very little to do with music, and everything to do with wishful thinking.

Quite how seriously people take Britten I discovered when, on a radio programme a few weeks ago, I nominated his War Requiem as one of my least favourite pieces of music, and was promptly submerged with letters of the "how-dare-he" variety. On the War Requiem, I'm with Stravinsky, who said that he couldn't hear any music for all the "battle of Britten" sentiment. It seems like literature of the cheapest variety. We all know what we think of the First World War: it's very sad. We all know what we think of Wilfred Owen's early death: it's very sad. And since the War Requiem is about these two deeply moving things, it must, therefore, be deeply moving itself, mustn't it?

Well, no, actually. If you make the effort to listen to the music, it starts to seem like a professional, cheap piece of work. There is a single idea in it, carried to the point of exhaustion; two different sorts of music are played consecutively, and then together. And then again, and again, and again. Put this next to the Glagolitic Mass or the Requiem Canticles, and it starts to sound like what it is, a requiem written by a peer of the realm.

And the prestige – look that word up, it is precisely the right word here – of Britten's operas has damaged the art form in England. Britten almost always worked from great works of literature, and his operas are adaptations rather than original works in the line of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. That can certainly work in the hands of a sensitive or intelligent creator, as Falstaff or The Marriage of Figaro instantly show. But Britten's adaptations are always coarser and simpler versions of literature. The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice are both quite startling misreadings of Henry James and Thomas Mann. But this, it came to be felt, was what opera ought to be doing, and they were billed as "Britten on Melville!" "Britten on Shakespeare!" It was almost as if he had anything to add.

Somehow, the whole weight of authority Britten attained did exactly what Sir William Glock's policy is supposed to have done; it overshadowed the work of much better composers. Tippett's operas, The Midsummer Marriage above all, are far more interesting and exciting than anything by Britten, but it was as if the English could only cope with one great opera composer at a time, and they went for the wrong one. Britten had little time for anything new or interesting; he famously walked out of the first performance of Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, for instance. Any really curious musical mind would surely have been interested by that remarkable piece.

Enough, really, of Britten. He has no reputation to speak of outside the English-speaking world – I once saw a brave attempt to put on The Rape of Lucretia in Naples, and how the audience yawned. It does no harm, in general, to overpraise small talents, since time usually sees their reputations disappear.

What is really damaging is that there really were great composers working in England at the time: there was Tippett, and Roberto Gerhard, and the beginnings of something really thrilling in Birtwistle. The problem is that for a long time, we just couldn't hear them because of a terrible, literary sort of din going on at the same time. What was it? Ah yes, the War Requiem.