Lady Luck was shining when, in 2005, I was domiciled in Brooklyn as Sherill Tippins published February House, her mind-boggling account of the brownstone in Brooklyn Heights where, during the war, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears cohabited with an improbable cast of great young American minds.
The rules of their house were simple and idealistic: share ideas, share artistic successes, share the rent, be around to pick up the pieces when projects hit personal or critical buffers. As the outside world was plunging itself into chaos, 7 Middagh Street would become an artistic sanctuary. WH Auden acted as matron, collecting the rent and fixing broken hearts. Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Salvador Dalí came for dinner. Auden wrote New Year Letter and For The Time Being, as another tenant, the brilliant but highly strung Carson McCullers, was working on her novella The Ballad of the Sad Café. The composer Paul Bowles, recently returned from Paris, moved in with his wife, Jane, and their unorthodox marital arrangements – they both had gay relationships, too – caused household ripples. And it was while living in Brooklyn that Bowles shifted from composing music to writing prose, but not before conceiving of projects such as his zarzuela The Wind Remains, premiered by Bernstein with choreography by John Cage’s future beau Merce Cunningham. Other tenants included the louche George Davis, fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and the novelist Richard Wright, who was embracing communism as he forged alliances with Harlem writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Klaus and Golo Mann, sons of Thomas, were regular houseguests. And in the dead of night the burlesque ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee would slink off to Manhattan to entertain, before returning home to Middagh Street to continue work on her sub-Raymond Chandler detective novel The G-String Murders.
You wonder why some subject-hungry author hadn’t twigged before that there was a book waiting to be written about what became known as February House because several of the building’s co-inhabitants – Auden and McCullers included – celebrated their birthdays in February. The very idea of the tweedy, introverted, polytonal Britten sharing a house with not only a stripper, but the strip artist of popular imagination, is richly comic and symbolic of an incongruous fusion of personality and setting: Britten in his room fathoming an exquisite sequence of bitonal harmonies as Gypsy Rose Lee, further along the corridor, was fixing rotating tassels about her busty substances.
Our image of Britten today: a country squire lords it up over Aldeburgh, afternoon tea and crumpets at 3 o’clock sharp, Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera too much of a din for his fragile ears. The prospect of Britten taking the subway into Manhattan – breathing the same artistic air as Edgard Varèse, Charlie Parker, John Dos Passos, Edward Hopper – is unlikely in the extreme. Did Ben and Peter visit jazz clubs? Attend concerts at Carnegie Hall? Hang out in New York diners, or in the East Village? Questions which inevitably come to mind. And inspired to eavesdrop on these resonant ghosts, I walked from where I was staying in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Park Slope to Middagh Street, Tippins’s book in hand, only to be disappointed. The block where Britten lived was, I subsequently learn, demolished after the war to make way for the Brooklyn to Queens express subway. The physical site gone, the ghosts scream ever louder.
Truth is, it suited Britten not to dwell on his three-year American sojourn. The trip was everything escaping abroad in your mid-twenties ought to be: exhilarating but displacing, spiritually necessary but emotionally terrifying, a sense of distance that highlights all the faults and hypocrisies of your own culture just as you’re missing it like crazy. Auden had left for America earlier than his friend Britten, and word was that it offered opportunities about which British composers could but dream. Britten was impatient. He felt unappreciated and undervalued by the British musical establishment. America felt like a future. And hovering in the background was the wider political reality. War with Nazi Germany was becoming a troubling inevitability and, as pacifists, Britten and Pears genuinely feared they would spend the war in prison, a fate that ultimately befell their friend Michael Tippett.
Not that they intended to stay for three years. Their original plan had been to play some concerts in Canada before following up on the hint of a film score commission in Hollywood; but Britten and Pears were diverted to the East Coast by the promise of accommodation with friends, the Mayers, on Long Island. However, as had happened with Auden before him, the British press took a dim view of their star composer absconding at the time of greatest national need. Britten, though, unlike the more diplomatic Auden, compounded the issue when an article he had written for the New York Times in March 1940, ‘An English composer sees America’, found its way home and his list of complaints – everything from miserly British commission fees to superior American orchestras – royally stung. Britten was homesick enough and the escalating fracas compounded his feelings of isolation.
One part of his life had, however, come right. Britten and Pears left Southampton docks close friends but were now romantically entwined. Les illuminations, Britten’s setting of Arthur Rimbaud for voice and strings, which be began in Suffolk and completed on Long Island, marked the transition. The third movement was dedicated to Wulff Scherchen – son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen and Britten’s previous romantic obsession – while the seventh song, ‘Being Beauteous’, was dedicated to Pears as a declaration of love.
And two things are immediately apparent. Despite the geographic and emotional upheaval, Les illuminations remains impeccably consistent in terms of style. There was to be no sudden lurch towards Americana, and with one major exception, the folksy operetta Paul Bunyan, that’s how it stayed. Britten’s Violin Concerto, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1940, is characteristic smudged, fibrous neo-classicism, with a favourite device, a passacaglia, underpinning the finale; the Sinfonia da Requiem is similarly certain of itself – both works major achievements for the 26-year-old composer.
The conductor Sir Mark Elder views the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem as key moments in Britten’s development. ‘When Britten left England, the upset was quite real,’ he tells me. ‘He was regarded as the jewel of young British composers, cutting edge and well read, and he returned in 1942 aware that there was ground to be made up. The Sinfonia da Requiem tells us about his brilliance as an orchestral thinker; but the works I’ve just recorded were his contribution to the war effort, commissioned jointly by the BBC and CBS, the idea being that they would tell Americans about the realities of British wartime life.’
Elder is much admiring of Britten’s craft and amused by a section in An American in England where Britten turns in a note-perfect pastiche of a tea dance waltz. But there were weightier matters to contend with. Paul Bunyan, the operetta he’d written in collaboration with Auden in Brooklyn, had opened his ears to the possibilities of folklore-based music theatre. ‘The language is tinted with touches of Copland,’ Elder says, ‘but in its understated way it’s pure Britten.’ Where could he go next? Perhaps home? Perhaps engaging with the folklore of his own country was a way forward? What about using that poem by George Crabbe he had read while in Brooklyn – Peter Grimes?
This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe