The film director Tony Palmer is closely associated with Benjamin Britten’s life and work, having made four features on the composer and his work at Aldeburgh – Benjamin Britten and his Festival, The Burning Fiery Furnace, Death in Venice and A Time There Was. A fifth, Nocturne, will receive its premiere at the Barbican on July 2nd. We spoke about his memories of the composer, and why he thinks that, 45 years on from his first documentary on Britten, there are still misunderstandings of his character.
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?
It was on my 16th birthday. Ironically I lived in Lowestoft, and for my birthday I was given, reasons for which I could never understand, the very first LP of Peter Grimes! At that point I wasn’t particularly interested in music, and was not aware that Britten was born in Lowestoft. It must have been an early copy, because the music master at Lowestoft Grammar School was not aware of it. It was the original, with a rather nasty plastic cover. I’ve kept it because it was the first record I ever had. Britten and his music have haunted me ever since! I told him this story much later on, and he signed the record for me.
Having known Britten relatively well, how would you describe him as a person?
In the new film someone describes him and Peter Pears as ‘well behaved prep school masters’. Lowestoft was not a backwater – the fishing fleet was huge – but it was provincial, and Britten was provincial. His father was a dentist, but very much minded being called that, and preferred to be known as a dental surgeon. So there is something very upper middle class about his upbringing. He understood that it was work that mattered, and the idea of sitting down to start work at 8:30 in the morning he was familiar with. Like all great artists, though, they’re not all like us, so you had to watch him very carefully.
I firmly believe he is one of the greatest composers, on a par with Stravinsky and Shostakovich, who I both met as well. You need to treat them not with too much deference but with respect. He was wonderfully jolly at times, too, and a wonderful tennis player. As he became more of a public figure, he didn’t like small talk. Yet he had time to write to me, which I think was extraordinary! I think that’s what he did, because he had good manners and that was very important to him.
Do you think Britten is properly understood as a person?
No. That’s why I’ve made another film, and I think with Nocturne I’ve got closer than I ever have to getting it right. I first met him properly in 1962, and here we are just over 50 years later. I’ve come a long way in my understanding since then!
What has changed?
You’ll have to see the film for that bit! It started four years ago, when I had dinner with someone who was very closely associated with him. They asked me if I was going to do anything for the centenary year, and said, “What we’re all dreading is the pebbles of Aldeburgh shown to Dawn from the 4 Sea Interludes, with a discussion about the boys Britten knew, and the usual platitudes”. I thought ‘I’ve been as guilty as anybody with that’, so I went away and listened to the music, and went back through the interviews I had done, and discovered I already had the answers.
What was it that led you to the Nocturne for this film?
I thought the Nocturne was central to this, and Peter Pears told me that too, so I’m on good authority. Britten was terrified of night, but the choice of poetry – and particularly The Kind Ghosts by Wilfred Owen – was critical. Somehow, despite its size, the orchestra sounds like Wagner at times! The Wordsworth poem (But that night when on my bed I lay) is hurled at you, and the Shakespeare (Sonnet XLIII) is an extraordinary poem, and that was done for Peter. It is in effect a pocket guide to this composer, the different settings, the Wilfred Owen poem, and the great love poem at the end. There is no other composer who could have done that. There’s a wonderfully revealing anecdote that Marianne Harewood gives on the film. She went with Britten to Moscow for the premiere of the Cello Symphony, and she recounts how Shostakovich looked at Britten at one point and said, “You, great composer – me little composer”.
Leonard Bernstein’s quote from the start of A Time There Was, about Britten’s music masking an inner torment in his mind, has obviously resonated with you. Do you think he understood Britten?
You weren’t ever quite sure, but I think so, and his reference to ‘the gears are grinding but not quite meshing’ in Britten’s music is a telling one. The music on the surface might be charming, but what Lenny does not answer is why the gears are not quite meshing, and I don’t think I answered that in my film either. I think it gets answered in Nocturne though. The boys and children is a complete red herring, a footnote – it is not the main story, although it has been covered incredibly well by John Bridcut. A Time There Was asks the question about Britten’s character but doesn’t answer it.
Is the answer to Britten’s inner torment to be found in war?
I couldn’t possibly comment! It’s not simply war, but you are on the right lines. One thing that is inevitably forgotten is that I interviewed Britten at great length in 1966-1967, and Pears from 1978 to 1979. When I began to think what I wanted to say it in Nocturne it was absolutely there, and I’d missed the significance of it. Peter reminded me that within a couple of weeks of the Peter Grimes premiere, in 1945, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin had gone to Belsen concentration camp to perform. Menuhin was ambivalent about it, but can you imagine the shocking effect it had on them? When Britten came back Peter Pears said he went to bed for a week, and also said that none of his music after that was the same.
What do you remember of the War Requiem premiere?
For the film we interviewed the Presentor from the War Requiem, and what I remember was sitting there after the performance, with everybody sat in total silence, and we just didn’t know what to do. Everybody was greatly geared up. We learned a very funny story in the making of the film though. It was a live broadcast, and the Third Programme went out at 8pm. The announcer did his thing, and then there was a long period of silence – because we were all trying to get in to the Cathedral! Only one door was open, and Britten refused to go out to start conducting while they were all getting in. Some weeks later there was a letter sent to the BBC, thanking them for their respectful silence before the War Requiem started, whereas it was just us trying to get in!
Looking at your footage of Britten playing the piano, do you think Britten the performer is overlooked sometimes?
That’s very much the case. What an astonishing pianist. I don’t think he was the best conductor in the world, but I’ve spoken to some members of the English Chamber Orchestra for the film, and one of them said you played as if your life depended on it because of who he was.
For the footage with Richter in A Time There Was, we’d asked him several times if he was willing to be filmed and he had said no, so I said this to Britten. He said ‘get absolutely ready’, so we were on the stage with celluloid, and you couldn’t miss us. Richter came in, saw me, and looked daggers at me, then was literally grabbed by Britten and marched to the stage. So then he thought ‘anything you can do, I can do better’, and he was slowing down and speeding up a lot in the music! So Richter looked at me daggers again when they had finished, but then he came over to me and said ‘thank you’.
We also had another interview that we didn’t use in Nocturne, which was with John Shirley-Quirk, who recounted that in rehearsal Britten played the intro to whatever they were going to do, but he was so taken aback by the quality of the playing that he couldn’t begin singing.
Are there any pieces in Britten’s output you find more difficult?
As you go past the War Requiem you get to the Cello Symphony, which I think is one of the angriest pieces ever written. I think because of the phenomenal success of the War Requiem he was taken aback and changed course completely. I think the church parables are as sparse as they come in Britten’s writing, and I do believe that the 21 minutes of Phaedra are worth 13 Richard Strauss operas! It was supposedly one of the few pieces of Britten that Stockhausen liked. I think from Death in Venice onwards he wanted to find out something about himself. I think the fact the War Requiem pleased the public made him think he misjudged what he should be doing. The Third String Quartet is breathtaking, a man contemplating his end. We have the Amadeus Quartet playing it on the film.
What is your favourite Britten piece?
If I told you one piece now it would be different this afternoon! An American academic called John Tibbetts, who has written a book about me, sent me the biographical bit. He worked out the transitional motif between Act 1 and Act 2 of Death In Venice, the ‘I Love You’ sequence, that I’d used it in 15 different films, pictures that were not about Britten. It has mesmerised me and haunts me forever.