Britten the pacifist

by Simon Collings

Tony Britten’s drama-documentary Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict is a thoughtful and well-researched contribution to the Britten centenary celebrations. Throughout his life Britten abhorred anything involving the destruction of life. He believed he could best help society by creating music. These aspects of the composer’s life are explored at some length in the film.

The primary focus is on Gresham School in Holt, Norfolk where Britten was a student. In the 1930s Gresham was an exceptionally liberal establishment encouraging pupils to explore radical political ideas. W H Auden and Donald Maclean were among the alumni.

Like many of his fellow school students Britten flirted with communist politics and as a young man wrote music for left-wing playwrights like Montagu Slater (the librettist for Peter Grimes.) But it was Britten’s pacifism which ultimately won out.

 The film allows ample space for Britten’s music to speak, including passages from some very early works. Ian Burnside and James Gilchrist give strong performances of some of the songs and the War Requiem also features prominently.

 One particularly moving moment in the film is when the cellist Anita Lasker Wallfisch recalls the young Britten performing at Belsen with Yehudi Menuhin just after the camp was liberated. She was one of the camp inmates. The Nazis organised orchestras in the concentration camps and Wallfisch survived because of her musical abilities.

 The reconstructions of life at the school are a little wooden but Alex Lowther is rather touching as the young curly-haired Britten. Overall a film worth looking out for.