Britten’s country vicar

Compared to the number of clergy characters in British fiction of the last century, there are very few indeed in opera. One, however, appears in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1947). And, given the various attempts both to stress and downplay the strength of Britten’s attachment to the Anglicanism of his youth, the vicar of the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford is a useful point from which to view Britten’s treatment of the established Church of England.

I don’t propose here to analyse Britten’s religion in any depth, since there are several such accounts already. I would note only the creative tension between Britten’s friendships with figures such as Walter Hussey (and the small but important corpus of religious music) with readings of Britten that stress his status as outsider, a gay man in a country in which homosexuality was illegal until he had reached near old age. I would argue that Mr Gedge is at once a character with which Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier have some sympathy, but who by virtue of his office is integral to the repressive society in which Albert has been trapped.

Loxford is of course a lighter, more comic sketch of the same social forces in lockstep that appear with such terrifying effect in Peter Grimes; the Borough has its own vicar, the Reverend Horace Adams. This is the Protestant England of 1900, in which poppies are too Roman Catholic to be used to decorate the church; Albert is presented with a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as Gedge exclaims:

The Bible, Shakespeare, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…
Three cornerstones of our national heritage!

Gedge is obsequious to the formidable Lady Billows, a relationship with overtones of that between Austen’s Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg. He, as vicar, is part of the committee, along with the mayor, the schoolmistress and the superintendent, that meets to assess the virtue of the young people of the village: aristocracy, church, school and town together as monitors and enforcers of what we are supposed to read as a stifling conformity. To be sure, this is the dominant note of the opera as a whole.

But there are signs that Britten does not regard the vicar wholly negatively, such as the shimmering, luminous music to which Britten sets the vicar’s musing on the nature of virtue, which, ‘says Holy Writ’, is:

Grace abounding whensoever, wheresoever, howsoever it exists.
Rarer than pearls… rubies… amethyst,
Richer than wealth… wisdom… righteousness! (Act One, Scene One)

Although it is obscured by productions that cast Gedge as an very elderly man, there is also the moment in which he and the schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, inspired by the signs of spring around them, duet with lines from the Song of Songs, that most spring-like and indeed erotic book of the Bible. Here is a glimpse of an idealised Christian world in which virtue is no deadening renunciation of the world; Christian relationships need not entail a denial of the flesh.

‘And lo! the winter is past…
‘The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth… (Act One, Scene One).

Britten in Northampton, 1943

While writing my study of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, I came across a source relating to Benjamin Britten which seems not to have been noticed by scholars to date. The connection with Britten is the anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, which Hussey commissioned in 1943 for his church, of St Matthew, Northampton. The correspondence between Britten and Hussey in relation to the commission has been integrated into the standard edition of Britten’s Letters, and copies lodged at the Britten-Pears Library. The making of the anthem is documented at length in chapter 3 of my book, which should be published in 2017.

The source in question is among the Hussey Papers, held at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester (MS336). A small notebook, it is a record, made soon after the event, of Britten’s visit to Northampton on Sunday 1st August, bringing with him manuscript copies of the anthem. Hussey and Britten lunched together, heard the choir, and settled down for some conversation over tea in the Vicarage. The notes Hussey made, much of which are in the form of verbatim quotation, shed light on some matters of interest in relation to Britten more widely.

The first is Britten’s views on Christianity. The degree to which Britten had any personal faith has occupied his several biographers over the years, with different results. The man of faith that appears in the work of Eric Walter White was replaced by both Humphrey Carpenter and Paul Kildea with a rather more mixed picture: for Kildea, he was at most ‘a deist in a theists’ world, a bar-room brawl he would never win.’ (Benjamin Britten, p.207). Whatever his own faith, Britten let Hussey know that he was glad to be working for the Church, and that, apart from a single piece – the Te Deum, for St Mark’s North Audley Street – he had never been asked to do so; not by any cathedral organist or anyone else. Hussey recorded Britten as saying:

Every real artist must really have some work in him to do for the Ch[urch]. He may not be a regular churchgoer but he must have a religion; more than that he must realise what art owes to the Ch[urch] & that much of the best has been done for the Ch[urch]. Their separation has been such a tremendous loss for both.

This generalised sense that the making of art was religious in some way was common amongst those Hussey patronised, Henry Moore among them. This seems to be the most explicit recorded statement of the idea that Britten made.

The other most extended comments from Britten that Hussey recorded relate to William Walton. Hussey had in fact approached Walton first, earlier in 1943, to write for St Matthew’s, but he had refused. The relationship between Britten and Walton has been written up as personally cordial, not to say friendly, but with an element of professional rivalry. ‘Entre nous’, Britten remarked:

I think he’s going through rather a bad patch now. [Having had] tremendous success, more than any other British composer, there looms a point after some success when a composer has to decide whether he will exploit that success in [the] same sort of way, or go on developing & not trouble about the success. I wish W.W. would do a little more serious music & not so much for films, wireless & the like.

Had Hussey got something from Walton, Britten thought, he might ‘have got something rather by rote – unless perhaps if you gave him a free hand to do just what he liked & not mind [something] shocking etc.’ Hussey was to bide his time, but as dean of Chichester cathedral succeeded in obtaining from Walton his Chichester Service in 1975.

Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]