The New Republic has posted an article I wrote about Benjamin Britten, based on last year’s 10oth annviersary celebrations of his birth. I’ve always been ambivalent about his music, loving some of it, indifferent to much of it. But I ended the year loving more of it, especially after making peace with what I call his fundamental tendency to smallness.
Every article about Britten has to deal with his erotic fixation on boys. Here’s how I grappled with that:
That particular psychosexual key may seem to unlock many Britten mysteries. In his biography, Powell devotes a few obligatory pages to unraveling the darker side of the composer’s years as a schoolboy, including the possibility that he was the victim of rape. These questions are not particularly relevant to Britten’s music, though they do explain many of the uses to which he put music, and some of the subjects that he felt needed elaboration through music. Decrying cruelty to innocent young men or boys was a prism through which Britten transcended his own inclinations to smallness. But that same smallness—the middle-class propriety that suffuses everything he wrote with occasional cathartic exceptions—was also a compensation mechanism for the frightening sexual allure of sadism and pederasty. The trope of sadism and innocence was both a form of protest and a heavily cathected nexus of desire that could not be contained within his immensely proper lifestyle. Spiritually and intellectually, the way out of his limitations was too terrifying a road to travel. Auden, a friend from early years and a collaborator on projects such as the operetta Paul Bunyan, seems to have noticed this, and said so, and the
friendship was sundered.
Happy to see my August essay about the challenges faced by orchestras, written for the August 29 issue of The New Republic, was included in the top six essays of the year, as selected by the New York classical radio station, WQXR. Here is the full list:
1. “Pitch Battles,” by Colin Dickey, The Believer, January 2013
2. “In Search of Van Cliburn” by Prudence MacKintosh, Texas Monthly, February 28.
3. “Othello’s Daughter” by Alex Ross The New Yorker, July 29.
4. “America’s Orchestras Are in Crisis” by Philip Kennicott, The New Republic, August 29.
5. “The Battle of Britten” by Leo Carey, New York Review of Books, August 15.
“Heat in a Mild Climate” by James Wood, London Review of Books, December 19, 2013
My other half can testify to the fact that reading Norman Lebrecht’s new book on Mahler, “Why Mahler?,” was almost physically painful. I began by covering its pages with comments and yellow highlights. And then I gave up. It was a goldmine of howlers. I review it in more temperate fashion at The New Republic’s The Book.
Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape, an excellent new history of Washington memorial culture, changed my thinking about the National Mall. I’m afraid I have all too often allowed myself to think of the Mall as sacred space, inviolate and, in a phrase made popular by its most ardent defenders, “a substantially completed work of civic art.” If you suffer from some of this kind of lazy thinking, Savage’s very fine book will help you undo sloppy habits. His history traces not just the physical transformation of the Mall over the last two hundred years, but the philosophical shift from thinking in terms of public grounds to public space that explains how it came to look the way it does today. I reviewed the book for the New Republic’s handsome online book review.