Great debate: Benjamin Britten failed to share the perils of war with his fellow countrymen, says Michael Cole

PUBLISHED: 17:06 26 July 2013 | UPDATED: 17:06 26 July 2013

Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh.

Peter Grimes on the beach at Aldeburgh.


Suffolk resident, journalist, and former Royal correspondent Michael Cole accuses Britten of running away from the dangers of war – and says he would rather listen to the music of George Formby.

George FormbyGeorge Formby

I would be more inclined to be “hugely proud” of Benjamin Britten’s legacy, as his admirers suggest, had Lord Britten chosen to share the perils of his country’s darkest days, as most British artists did during the Second World War.

Unlike most of his fans who decry me for suggesting that Emperor Ben might have no clothes, I met the man on several occasions and, as I have already made clear, found his fortitude in the face of the destruction by fire of the Maltings Concert Hall at Snape wholly admirable.

But it cannot be denied that in return for the adoration and rewards that come the way of successful artists, there is a reasonable expectation that they will do the right thing by those people who have made them rich and famous, the British public. This becomes vital in times of national danger.

Ivor Novello wrote THE song of the First World War, Keep the Home Fires Burning. But when he bought black market petrol coupons in order to run his Rolls Royce during the Second World War, he went to jail and rightly so.

Maurice Chevalier was a great artist whose talent spanned the Second World War. But the French people never again held him in such high esteem after he willingly entertained German officers crowding the nightclubs of occupied Paris.

Coco Chanel is probably the greatest genius that fashion has ever seen.

But her lustre is dimmed by her readiness to collaborate vertically with the German occupiers while co-habiting horizontally with a specific Wehrmacht officer.

Britten and his pal Peter Pears ran away to America in April 1939. Even when they returned in 1942, Britten did nothing to comfort a beleaguered nation, unlike concert pianist Myra Hess, who gave free wartime concerts for troops and civilians at a National Gallery stripped of his paintings. As a Jew, she would have been arrested and doubtless murdered in the event of a Nazi victory.

There was work that conscientious objectors like Britten could do without compromising their pacifism. But Britten did not do it.

The music of George Formby comes close to my pain threshold but I would rather listen to When I’m Cleaning Windows than the strained recitative of Peter Pears, grinding through another charmless passage of one of Britten’s male-only operas, if only because I can see in my mind’s eye the buck-toothed and gormless figure of Formby strumming his ukulele in order to entertain our troops.

They had no choice in whether they would fight to defend our country and probably no choice of entertainer. But they laughed and applauded anyway. Britten, an accomplished pianist, was not on offer.

The great Duke Ellington said there are only two sorts of music, good and bad. He also mentioned that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. Britten wrote 16 operas but you listen in vain for anything that swings, by which I mean resembles a tune.

Britten wrote an enormous amount of music. But how can he be acclaimed as the greatest British composer of the 20th Century if almost none of his fellow countrymen could whistle, sing or hum anything he wrote, even under pain of torture?

Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti and Rossini wrote themes, melodies and arias which we instantly know and love. Mozart was a pop star – his music was popular when it was written and has stayed popular ever since.

Schubert’s song book made him the one-man Beatles of the 19th Century.

Most great music has been widely popular at some stage in our cultural evolution. Britten is high brow, exclusive and nearly impenetrable. His most frequently performed work is The Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra, simply because it is the most accessible.

On one evening of sheer agony, I witnessed Noye’s Fludde at Wymondham College. Perhaps the music teacher enjoyed it but it didn’t look as if the children did. But they would have loved performing Grease or Les Miserables: good songs, you see, and tunes, a word the Britten fans don’t like me to use.

It embarrasses them but because there aren’t any in Britten. He was hostile to the English pastoral tradition of Ralph Vaughan Williams, once resident at Walberswick just up the coast, who wrote music most of us like. As for Edward Elgar, well, his symphonic music wasn’t Ben’s cup of Earl Grey.

Cleverer people than me say that Peter Grimes is a great opera. But before it was premiered at Sadler’s Wells, the cast were complaining about the “cacophony” of the score.

It was not until 1962 that Britten wrote War Requiem, interspersed with the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918. Perhaps that was Britten’s belated payment of a debt to the dead of two world wars.

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