Benjamin Britten (right) with Peter Pears: Is his pacifism, which caused the couple to leave Britain in 1939, an everlasting stain on his otherwise massive reputation?
I was never indifferent to Benjamin Britten, but it took Tony Palmer's magnificent film about him — A Time There Was, which I saw on its first broadcast in 1979 — to bring home to me that for all his contradictions, difficulties and, in one or two respects, absurdities, Britten was an unqualified genius. He was a difficult man. The tolerance of his spiteful caprice about people, his social climbing and his excessive (though, I am sure, innocent) interest in pubescent boys all requires great moral force. But the main problem I have always had with him is his pacifism; and the more I think about it, the harder it is.
There is cause to think about it again, not just as this is Britten's centenary year (he would have been 100 on St Cecilia's Day) but because Mr Palmer has released a new 140-minute documentary on the composer, Nocturne, now out on DVD. I have rarely seen such a profoundly troubling film. Palmer is a master, and this is his masterpiece. With superb performances of parts of Britten's darker and more troubling works, Nocturne presents Britten's pacifism as the guiding star of his whole creative life, which I think is fair. I would certainly put it as an influence at least equal with Britten's Heimat — Suffolk and the sea — and with his homocentric interests, which became more obvious in his works as he aged, notably in his operas. Palmer shows great respect for Britten's feelings about war, and couches that sensitivity both in photography of unusual beauty, and more obvious, searing references to the Nazi death camps — Britten played the piano in Belsen, after the liberation — and to the continuing, ghastly loss of life through war commemorated until recently by the people of Wootton Bassett, as yet more dead brave young men were brought home from Afghanistan through their town.
It is always dangerous to challenge, or to make assumptions, about the motivations of others: but Britten's pacifist stance in 1939 invites one to do so. Rather like Wagner's repellent feelings about Jews, it requires an admirer of the music to try to understand the motivation of the composer in the philosophical dimension of his life. And this, in the case of Britten's refusal to fight in 1939, can leave a taste too unpleasant for all but the most ardent enthusiast to bear.
To a young man growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, war must have seemed the ultimate absurdity. We apparently fought the Great War — according to glib historians — to stop something called "German hegemony in Europe", something that now, 95 years after the Armistice, has been accomplished by other means. It was the most pointless war imaginable, fought with tactics that did more to cheapen human life than any other moral disaster in history. Men physically broken by bullets or shrapnel, weakened by gas attacks, blinded and emasculated were but the living testimony to the wickedness of that war; 750,000 names carved on British war memorials alone spoke for the dead. Anyone in the early 1930s who thought more of that would be a good idea would have been certifiably mad.