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Few themes have greater longevity in Britten studies than politics. Conventionally, Britten abandoned his overt political engagement of the 1930s – symbolised by his departure to the United States – finding, through a process of self-discovery, a breadth of human expression that transcended the slogans of politicised art in Peter Grimes. Britten’s pacifism and left-wing politics have formed – with his sexuality – a nexus of othered identity that was, as Pears had it, ‘outside the pale’ in British society of the mid-twentieth century. However, this dichotomy of self and other risks rendering British society an undifferentiated landscape of political and social conservatism. This, in turn, prevents consideration of how Britten’s left-wing pacifism intersected with broader trends and attitudes, and other radical individuals, as well as of the place of politics within his myriad, complex interactions with such conventional institutions as the BBC or the monarchy. It is thus timely to reconsider how communism, socialism, and pacifism intersected with Britten’s musical career, exploring the history of these terms, and how they influenced aesthetics, cultural practice, and individuals.
Joanna Bullivant, Lecturer in Music at Magdalen College and a postdoctoral researcher in the Oxford University Faculty of Music, having previously held posts at the University of Nottingham and King's College, London.
Writing about T. E. Lawrence in 1934, Auden drew upon a pronouncement of Lenin's that one must ‘go hungry, work illegally and be anonymous. […] The self must learn to be indifferent’. The first half of the quotation also, famously, ended Auden's poem ‘Our Hunting Fathers’, written in the same year. Despite the implicit allusion to the second part of Lenin's statement, Auden and Britten's Our Hunting Fathers, which featured the poem, has been viewed as anything but an expression of indifference. Already in Donald Mitchell's classic reading, the song cycle became composer and poet's passionate protest against the inhumanity of both fascist Europe and conservative Britain in 1936, an interpretation which renders the work prescient of Britten's later works highlighting suffering at the hands of violent or oppressive societies – in Peter Grimes and Billy Budd for instance. In more recent criticism, Mitchell's incipient suggestion of Britten's personal moral investment in the work has been pursued in readings of the work, like that of Stephen Arthur Allen, as an attempt by the young composer to reject conventional social mores and come to terms with his sexuality. Where interpretations have varied in focus, what they have agreed on is the overall sincerity of the work as an articulation of Britten's political, sexual and moral subjectivity in 1936. Such a conclusion is reinforced by three distinctive features of the work: firstly, the record of Britten's diaries from the period of composition point to a process of writing punctuated with horror and concern over the state of world events at the time. Secondly, the subjectivity of the work has appeared to be bolstered by its musical idiom. As Paul Kildea has written, explicitly linking Britten's music in the 1930s to the intense subjectivity of Viennese expressionism, the composer's exposure to modernism in this decade was the catalyst for ‘a complete breakdown in the polite distinction between art and emotion that had distinguished his output thus far’. Finally, while Philip Brett rightly asked whether Auden ‘ventriloquizes too insistently through his brilliant new pupil’ in the work, the poet's contribution has in general commanded far less attention than Britten's.