It was a dark and stormy night. The waves crashed unrelentingly on the shingle at Aldeburgh, moving towards and then past the high tide mark. All the boats were pulled up high and out of danger. If Peter Grimes and his ill-fated apprentice had been real they would have been the only ones out on a night like that. As they were merely creations of the fevered imaginations of George Crabbe and Benjamin Britten, no one was stirring.
Spray whipped across the garden wall of Crag House. A single light burned upstairs. The window rattled with the wind as the curtains were drawn closed.
Inside, a pyjama-clad Peter Pears paused to admire their chintz print. He had selected them personally in London during the scarcity of the immediate post-war period. Very dear though worth every penny. Ben could not be bothered with such things, which Peter sometimes thought a shame. But then Ben had other things to worry about. After all, he was a Great Composer.
Turning, Peter could see Ben still at his desk hunched over his work. He was all bundled up against the chill and the damp, corduroy blazer and Fair Isle sweater and nubbly tie giving him a little of the insulation that he lacked. He looked to Peter like a delightful present waiting to be unwrapped.
Peter bent to put his arms around the great man.
"Ben, my curly little sheep, come to bed," he said. "It's after eleven."
"Not now, darling. I'm composing."
Looking over his shoulder Peter could read the draft libretto and score, all scribbles and crossings out. Amidst the chaos of pencil marks a theme was dimly but unmistakably discernible.
"It's all E naturals," said Peter. "Just like The great bear and the pleiades."
"And it's all very well but I would like to sing other notes once in a while."
"I don't see why," replied Ben, affronted.
"People will think you've run out of ideas."
"Thematic continuity," said Ben firmly.
"They'll think that all I can sing are E naturals."
"But, dear heart, all you *can* sing are E naturals."
Peter sighed, taking on a long-suffering expression. It was not easy being an operatic muse when your natural vocal endowments meant that you were cut out for a life as a tenor--or possibly a baritone, who could be certain?--in the BBC Singers. One did one's best, naturally. There were certain other natural endowments with which one could compensate.
"Come to bed, honey bee," Peter repeated with a soft kiss to his lover's temple. "The hot water bottles are cooling off."
People often ask composers where they get their ideas. This is almost certainly a bad idea. Composers are not always sure where they get their ideas. Such questions make them anxious, as if they don't remember they might have to make something up. Even if they do remember, the answer might not have as much panache as the listener hopes. After all, "I picked up a volume of East Anglian poetry in L.A. and all of the small-minded parochialism in it made me homesick" hardly sounds like the makings of the greatest opera of the twentieth century, does it?
(This is because the greatest opera of the twentieth century is Salome and not Peter Grimes at all. Don't tell Ben.)
In this particular case the composer and his muse had been on a skiing holiday with Lord Harewood in the Alps. After days of sporting amusements out on the slopes, they had spent their evenings sitting by the fire and chuckling over the mordant wit of Lytton Strachey. Specifically, Elizabeth and Essex. It was the eve of the second Elizabethan era and everyone's mind was on…
"The Coronation," said Harewood suddenly. "I say, Ben, wouldn't it be jolly good to write an opera for the Coronation?"
"Yes," said Ben.
"No," said Peter.
"No?" said Ben, leaning over the book and peering intently at his partner. "Why not?"
"We have commitments, Ben. Recital tours. Your Venetian opera. Remember?"
Ben had been thinking of writing an opera all about the tragic love of a ghostly yet masculine servant for a young boy. All of a sudden celebrating the accession of the new Queen seemed far more appealing. He couldn't think why.
Being queer and left and conshie--as Peter once put it--one had to be particularly careful.
Being accessible was not a sin, he told himself. Being topical was not a sin. Pleasing one's adoring public was not a sin. It was certainly far less of a sin than…
He cleared his throat.
"I think it sounds a grand idea," he announced.
So they rearranged their commitments and put Ben's Venetian opera discreetly to one side (where it belonged). Ben began writing. Peter sulked a bit.
"And of course you must play the Earl of Essex," said Ben reassuringly.
"The handsome and virile young lover?"
"Well, naturally. Who else would you play?"
Peter looked slightly shifty. It was all very well, Ben's boundless faith in him, but when it came down to it Ben wasn't the one who had to get up on stage, was he? Besides which, Ben was still as slender and lissome as a boy. Peter had a strong suspicion that he himself would look rather stout in a doublet and hose.
"It isn't like that," said Peter, in his prevaricating yet dogged way. "I just…"
"Really, darling, who else would you play?"
"I am past forty, you know. Three years now. Perhaps, therefore, I could play someone past forty. It's simply an idea that you might consider."
"Of course, Peter," said Ben dismissively.
As he wrote the music, he always got the last word. Peter played the Earl of Essex.
Even official court composers can fall afoul of the censor's pen. Peter took great pleasure in explaining to friends the import of the communication that Ben had received.
"The Lord Chamberlain," he said with mock-confidentiality, "had to set his face against chamber pots. Or so we were told."
Ben just shook his head. For all of his sterling qualities, Peter's dramatic side did rather show through.
Murmurings of discontent were heard in the land. An anthem was promised, withdrawn, and finally passed on as a hand-me-down prize to a lesser star in the firmament.
("And don't, David, go round saying I've let you down," wrote Ben to the director of Covent Garden, "because it isn't true.")
William Walton told himself that his opera, his grand opera, the one that he was always just on the verge of finishing, would have been far better for the purpose if only he had been asked to supply an opera and if only he could have finished it. He set to the anthem instead and, in a fit of mostly accidental pique, spilt most of a bottle of ink over his half-completed fair copy. He resolved to go back to Ischia when all this was over and ignore the court and all its blandishments. If only…
London in the coronation year was thronged with traffic. It was if everyone had gone out and bought new cars, Morris and Austin and Rover filling the roads alongside the Routemaster buses, celebrating the end of austerity with good British makes. Ben drove a Rolls, naturally.
"If it really is business as usual now," said Peter as they made their way down the Embankment at a crawl, "then you would think that they would take sugar and bacon off the ration."
Ben just shook his head. Sometimes Peter thought that he had hardly noticed the rationing at all, preferring as he did the simplest and most unadorned of nursery food.
And yet Ben's hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel. Impatience with the traffic or anxiety over the first rehearsal of Gloriana, for which purpose they had driven all the way from Aldeburgh that morning.
When they finally arrived at the hall, the orchestral rehearsal was already in progress. At the podium was a nondescript man with an indistinct downbeat.
"I distinctly recall telling David Webster that John Pritchard was the chap for the job," said Ben in consternation, hands on narrow hips. "Who in blazes is this?"
"Basil Horsfield," said Peter, pulling the name from the depths of his memory.
"Who is he when he's at home?"
"I believe he's Pritchard's particular friend."
Ben harrumphed disapprovingly, as if such a thing had never been heard of before.
(But then it was completely different in their case.)
It was half an hour of workaday, uninspiring slog from the orchestra before John Pritchard himself finally strolled in. He was portly and elegant and dramatic, raven-haired and neither young nor old, replacing a narrow silk scarf around his broad neck as if he'd just flown in across the Atlantic but didn't like to brag. He went right to Basil's side and the two of them bent together in earnest and intimate contemplation over the score. It was as if he were entirely careless of the fault that he had committed in allowing another man to fill in for him without permission. Perhaps he didn't realize just what an honour it was to conduct for Benjamin Britten.
"What cheek," Ben was saying, grumbling under his breath in that way that he had when he expected Peter to overhear.
"Basil was at the Royal College of Music, if I remember correctly. Got his degree and all."
"It doesn't signify. That doesn't fit him to be a conductor."
"No," Peter agreed mildly, fingering a corner of his music that had already gone dog-eared with practice.
He had been to the Royal College of Music himself and, as at Oxford, left before it taught him anything he didn't need to know. Then he had left off being a prep school master before he taught the boys anything they didn't need to know. Things had a way of working out.
"I feel I'm being made a stranger to my own composition," said Ben.
Peter bit down hard on the words well, why don't you conduct it yourself then?
"Things have a way of working out," he said instead, admiring the handsome young men of the chorus as they began to make their way into the hall.
"All right, chaps," Pritchard was saying, picking up his baton. "Surprise me."
All across the world imperialism was failing. Winds of change were blowing. Peoples were becoming free. You could not have told it from the scene at the Royal Opera House.
Wall to wall it was carpeted with dignitaries in black tie and robes and medals, ladies so well-dressed that you could hardly tell the chandeliers from the jewelry. All of the world was there, Kings and Prime Ministers and potentates. Filmstock rolled steadily through the Pathe news cameras, leaving the air stuffy and close with the heat of their lights. Flashbulbs popped with that distinctive glassy crunch… surely the most modern of music.
And yet as the distinguished guests mingled in the foyer there was a sad lack of discussion about the artistic delights that the evening held in store. One might almost have thought that the world, as a whole, was not entirely enthusiastic about modern opera.
(Surely it could not be.)
Lingering around the corner, Ben tried fruitlessly to adjust his white tie. It felt just ready to choke him. And Peter, backstage, his own throat tight with clutching nerves, was not even there to help him with it. Not that he ever would have done so in public even if he had been there. All the respectability in the world, every laurel and plaudit won through painstaking effort could not have bought them that moment together.
(Mustn't frighten the horses now.)
Respectability only went so far.
As the royal party made its way to its box, the audience rustled its deckle-edged programmes, gazing about at itself all bejewelled and decorous and complacent. In a fitful way the anthem began, instruments stumbling in one by one as if the honour were simply too much for them. Most of the audience thought it was just that modern music.
The performers backstage knew better.
"JP has brought them in too early," said Peter, head cocked to one side as the sound echoed in the wings.
"It will be the first time he's come early to anything," replied Joan Cross spitefully, adjusting her red wig studded with gems. The light in the corridor swung overhead, casting fitful shadows.
"Ah well, there's nothing for it now."
Peter sighed, then followed her into the wings. Waiting for his entrance, he plucked restlessly at the sagging knee of his tights.
Three boxes over, William Walton and Constant Lambert looked down at the stage through supercilious opera glasses.
"BenandPeter," said Lambert in a disgusted sort of way. It was much the same tone that a future generation of music critics would use when discussing JohnandYoko. Not that Peter's impeccably phrased wailing was anything like Yoko's.
"Of all the men to choose for the task," said Walton, who was still smarting from the rebuke of having been asked to arrange the Anthem. "Fight for King and Country? Not Ben. Not Peter. Not John Pritchard either. Not one of them. Add Tippett to the programme and you'd have a job lot. Rankest hypocrisy. All that counts is that they're in with Webster and his sort."
"Bugger's Opera," said Lambert, dead drunk since morning and not for joy at the coronation.
"Twilight of the Sods," echoed Walton and snorted. "You can add Cranko and Plomer to the list as well. And you know they sabotaged my little anthem just because I'm not one of their cozy little crew."
"They'll be blaming you for sabotaging Ben's grand queer opera. Mark my words, see if they don't."
In the end there was more than enough blame to go around. Some blamed Walton. Walton blamed Pritchard. Pritchard blamed a hapless double bass player for his one wrong note.
("Any suggestion that the rendering travestied the composer's intention," he declared in a letter to the director of Covent Garden, "is hereby refuted by me.")
It is not known who the double bass player chose to blame.
The opera's second act was interspersed with courtly dances. This was for a very solid artistic reason: the Royal Ballet had let it be known that they wanted to get in on the performance. No one could say that Ben had not been agreeable.
"In earthen dishes, their deep sea fishes…" sang the masquers, with every appearance of great earnestness. "Woven, woven, woven blankets… And rustic trinkets, on wicker baskets, their country largesse, country largesse..."
A Foreign Office mandarin leaned towards his wife.
"Very deep, isn't it?" he asked. "Very… artistic."
"Hardly a single bit that one can hum," she replied in quiet, vague, well-bred dismay.
All through the performance they had watched yawns sweeping across the audience, soporific waves breaking just short of the orchestra pit. Elegant white-gloved hands had masked perfectly lipsticked mouths. Now those same hands fluttered politely in a mockery of applause that seemed to make no noise at all.
"It's the long gloves," said William Plomer, leaning towards Ben in the composer's box. "Very thick fabric. They muffle the applause."
They peered fixedly at the gloves below.
"Well-known fact," Plomer added.
Neither of them believed a word of it.
On stage, Peter Pears was taking his bows. The Earl of Essex, the broad-shouldered champion, the lover of the virgin. Ben's heart swelled for him. He seemed very pale, the sweat on his brow apparent in the bright stage lights.
"Clap, damn you," Ben said with subdued intensity, leaning forward over the railing as if by sheer force of will he could school the audience in the magnificence of the man standing before them. "Clap, damn you, clap."
And then there came the inevitable aftermath, once all the hangers-on had gone and all the champagne had been drunk. Hours later it was just the two of them alone in their London house. From nearby Regent's Park they could still hear the sound of voices and celebration as the last minutes of the Coronation day slipped past.
"Don't say I told you so," said Ben.
"I told you so," said Peter. "I did. Don't deny it."
"Come now, Peter…"
"You wanted to be a court composer. And now you're reaping what you've sown."
"I don't do it for myself, you know. Nor for the critics. Nor for Her Majesty (which I suppose you realise)."
He was obviously working his way up to something along the lines of, I do it for those who understand me. Those who have a capacity to feel the music. Those whom are performing it, for instance. In other words, I do it for you, all for you, Peter.
As satisfying as true love can be, one can only take so much of it.
Peter took a deep breath and then nodded graciously. It was at times like this that he was grateful for his inherited familial sense of noblesse oblige. Much like Her Majesty the Queen, and much like Pearses of generations past, people were always doing things for him that he would rather they had not done. And yet what could one do but generously accept the kindnesses of others?
"And yet it's all such a bore sometimes," concluded Ben. "Especially if one is not appreciated for oneself, but only for one's station in life."
Peter could not have agreed more. It was as if their nervous systems were sympathetically attuned, even though they were discussing completely different things.
"It's all the fault of the capitalist system," said Peter.
Ben nodded vigorously. "Yes. Yes, exactly. You see, Peter, you understand."
Such had been the burden of their song back in the late thirties, back when it was terribly fashionable to come into money through the death of some not terribly mourned great aunt and then to atone for one's sins by volunteering as an ambulance driver in Fascist Spain. One had to suffer for one's art and even more so for being middle-class. Nowadays Ben drove a Rolls or three, and Peter collected Constables, but they still happily remembered their days in the Musicians Union. Or at least the times when they had consoled themselves for the interminable meetings by eating gateaux together at a Lyon's Corner House.
They had both been young then. Young and gay and (in Ben's case) utterly oblivious. Peter remembered a smudge of icing at the corner of Ben's mouth and wanting so terribly to wipe it off with his thumb. He'd gone back to his flat and sung his heart out, for if he had not sung he would surely have screamed.
(It was a good thing too. If it hadn't been for all that suppressed desire, he would never have got into the habit of practicing regularly. Nowadays, naturally, he had Ben to remind him.)
And now, now, Ben was his.
"It was a marvelous opera," Peter said, knowing that it was exactly what Ben needed to hear. "Someday people will see."
"If only. If only, dear heart."
"They will. And until that day, you must restrict yourself to those that appreciate you."
Ben gave his lover a most winsome gaze.
"And who would that be?" he prompted.
No answer in words was necessary.
Back in their own flat on Soho Square, JP and Basil were more succinct.
"Philistines all," said Basil, shaking his head.
"That's not it," said JP. He was lounging on the bed in his red silk Chinese dressing gown, drinking one last post-opera glass of champagne.
"No? What do you reckon?"
"Too many queens in one production," said JP sagely.