Benjamin Britten (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was a leading British composer, conductor and pianist. He produced works in a wide variety of forms, opera being a particular strength. His most famous works include the War Requiem and the opera Peter Grimes. Britten was homosexual, and, according to biographer Donald Mitchell, “it was chiefly pre-pubescent boys to whom Britten was attracted”. In Britten's Children (2011), John Bridcut chronicles Britten’s many intense friendships with young boys between the ages of 9 and 14. Although clearly attracted to young people, Bridcut concludes that Britten’s behavior never went beyond bed-sharing, kissing and skinny dipping.
David Hemmings, who sang for Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, writes of Britten’s infatuation with him at the age of eleven (Mitchell & Reed, 2011, cited in references below):
I went on to stay with Britten in this wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere and he cared for me, he developed my voice and he was a deeply considerate father figure. It was only later that I learnt that he was very much infatuated with me and that caused some problems between himself and his long-time companion, Peter Pears. In all of the time that I spent with him he never abused that trust.
And when I listen to "The Turn of the Screw" now, I remember that moment, and it is perhaps one of the best gifts that anybody could give anyone, and I thank Benjamin Britten for that because no one else could have given it to me — particularly at eleven years old.
Britten dedicated one of his arrangements to thirteen-year-old Bobby Rothman, with whom he had shared a room (Mitchell & Reed, 2011):
When Britten stayed with the Rothman family, he shared a room with the thirteen-year-old Bobby: [...]
"many an evening we used to spend [...] a lot of time just really talking he in the bed next to me [...] His fondness for me was something that was beyond my normal social connections, and I was a little overwhelmed that someone should be so fond of me [...] I can still remember us talking late at night one time, and finding when it was really time to call it quits and go to sleep […] he said, ‘Bobby, would you mind terribly if, before we fell asleep, I came over and gave you a hug and a kiss?’ It was just one of those touching moments [...] And I’ve got to say I really did not know what to do except say, ‘no, no I don’t mind’, and he gently got up and gave me a gentle hug and kiss and said goodnight.”
Since his death, considerable information has emerged concerning Britten's close emotional attachments to young boys, some of them performers in his own works. A prominent example was David Hemmings who, at the age of twelve, created the role of Miles in Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James novella. (Hemmings went on to become a well-known film actor.)
In Boys as Muse (1993), one author explained:
[Britten] won the one and only scholarship offered by the Royal College of Music in 1930, at 17. Soon, Britten fell into the regular habit, which he maintained all his life, of choosing young male musicians or performers to stay at his home and work with him. He seemed to be selective and monogamous in a way, falling in love with one boy at a time, keeping a close friendship with him until he reached his late teens, and then drifting to another younger partner. (Numerous letters from Britten to these boys survive.) Most all of Britten's works have pivotal roles for young boy singers, and Britten would choose the boy for such a role, and begin rigorous training with him, which would end with long stays at his home. Britten would find excuses for a level of intimacy beyond what our culture would consider appropriate (sharing a bed, kissing, nude swimming
Carpenter and others have interviewed many of the boys involved with Britten, and they consistently claim they were aware Britten's attraction to them had a sexual component, yet they just as consistently deny they followed through on his suggestions of intimacy. One can believe these denials as one wishes. But all these boys have nothing but warm, positive memories of their relationship with the composer. Britten repeatedly took over the role of father-figure to boys of musical taste, limited means, and sometimes dysfunctional families. [...] Britten had limited sexual fulfillment via these relationships. It also seems clear that he had difficulty dealing with his own feelings of guilt and insecurity. This frustration came out in his work.
Britten was surprisingly consistent and open in all his operas. The common theme running through them is innocence lost. The major role would be sung by Peter Pears, and a boy soprano would find a dismal fate in a cruel world. Britten operatic works include: Peter Grimes, about a fisherman who has three young apprentices die in his service; an adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, about a young sailor who is falsely accused and executed; The Turn of the Screw, in which a new nanny suspects a young boy is being seduced by a ghost (or the gardener); and an adapation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, in which a writer become infatuated with a boy he sees while on vacation, and eventually dies of cholera instead of fleeing the infected city.
Britten's behavior, and the blind eye turned to it from a society only a few decades distant from our own, is quite revealing of the changes going on in contemporary Western culture.
Britten and [his life-long partner Peter] Pears became gay celebrities after Britten's death in 1976 at age 63. Their long, open relationship did not preclude Britten's peerage. Upon Britten's death, the Queen made a de facto recognition of the homosexual union by sending a personal message of condolence to Pears. The general understanding that Britten was a discreet boy-lover was not made into an issue.
Britten's last opera was Death in Venice (1973), based on the novella by Thomas Mann, in which an elderly writer becomes obsessed with a beautiful young boy.
- John Bridcut, Britten's Children, Faber and Faber, 2006.
- Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Faber and Faber, 1992.
- Mitchell D., Reed P. (2011). Letters from a Life Volume 3 (1946-1951): The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten. New York: Faber & Faber.
- Boy as Muse: Benjamin Britten (NAMBLA, 1993). From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 14, No. 1, Pgs. 50 - 53, Jan/Feb. 1993.