The icon inspired by forbidden desire: One of Benjamin Britten’s most influential muses was just 13 when they met. Now a new book claims the relationship became an obsession for Britain’s greatest composer… and sent shockwaves through both men’s lives
There was a ripple of excitement as the orchestra boarded the bus to Siena but, being the new boy, Benjamin Britten sat alone.
At 20 years old, the composer was starting to be recognised on the international music scene.
A breakthrough moment had come when Hermann Scherchen, the great German conductor, chose to include Britten’s Phantasy quartet in the programme for the 1934 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, in Florence. Now he had invited him to join the outing that marked the Festival’s end, a chance for the musicians to relax after high-octane concerts.
The older orchestra members may have passed him by, but at least one person was keen to get to know Britten: Scherchen’s son, Wulff, 13.
After five days stuck with his mother in an Italian guesthouse, Wulff was desperate for company. He slipped into the empty seat beside Britten, the only other youngster on the trip.
In Siena, it was raining. Britten had brought a mac, but Wulff was in shorts. With a flourish, the composer thrust his arm into the right sleeve and waved the left at Wulff, inviting him to share.
‘Fused together, side by side, it was not easy to move, so Ben suggested a three-legged walk, and thus they hobbled through the rain to the cathedral,’ writes Tony Scotland in his new biography of Wulff. ‘It amused the others, but for Ben and Wulff it was a charged might-have-been episode which remained vivid and possibly arousing.’
Britten was to become a giant of 20th-century music, revered for operatic and orchestral pieces including Peter Grimes, War Requiem and The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.
English composer Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976) conducting, June 1976. In recent years, questions have been raised about his private life. Innocently or otherwise, Britten was frequently drawn to the company of young men — sometimes very young indeed.
In recent years, though, questions have been raised about his private life. Innocently or otherwise, Britten was frequently drawn to the company of young men — sometimes very young indeed.
The composer created an adoring coterie of teenage choristers and musicians (including actor David Hemmings, star of 1960s thriller Blow-Up, who was taken under Britten’s wing when he auditioned for one of his operas as a boy soprano).
These boys, naturally, hung on the great man’s every word. He took them on outings. One, at least, shared his bed.
With Wulff Scherchen, who was to become a renowned poet, things went a step further. When they met again, four years after Siena — Wulff had just turned 18 and moved to England — he and Britten embarked on a passionate relationship that was to reverberate through the rest of their lives.
Wulff’s story is told in detail for the first time in Scotland’s book, Young Apollo. Although Wulff later married, he was forever haunted by his turbulent time as the composer’s muse.
Britten’s life was also shaken by their relationship, which inspired one of his signature pieces — Young Apollo, a ‘fanfare for piano’, which premiered in 1939.
‘I think it is one of Britten’s best and it is driven by his feelings,’ says Scotland. ‘It is exciting, with an amazing energy and drive.’
The day after the outing in Italy, Britten was told his father was ill and he rushed back to England. He had no more contact with Wulff until he discovered the boy was living in Cambridge, in 1938.
Life in Nazi Germany had become perilous for the Scherchens. Wulff’s Left-wing father had been denounced as a ‘darling of Marxists and Jews’ by the regime.
His championing of contemporary music and his rackety personal life — he married five times and had children both in and out of wedlock — put him beyond the pale.
By association, Wulff and his mother, Gustel, a musician, were tainted, even though she had separated from Scherchen. They eventually fled to England, where Gustel’s sister was (incidentally, under surveillance by MI5 as she was married to a Russian spy).
A family friend, Edward Dent, professor of music at Cambridge University, found Wulff a place at the prestigious Perse School and hired Gustel as his secretary.
Visiting London in 1938, Scherchen senior told Britten his son was in Cambridge, near to Britten’s home at The Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk. The composer wrote to Wulff immediately, inviting him to come and see him. The next day, Wulff sent a flirty reply, saying he wasn’t sure how he should address a 24-year-old he had met only once before. Should it be ‘Dear Sir’, an English ‘Hello Old Chap’ or ‘Darling Benjamin’?
Wulff Scherchen’s story is told in detail for the first time in Tony Scotland’s book, Young Apollo. Although Wulff later married, he was forever haunted by his turbulent time as the composer’s muse. Britten’s life was also shaken by their relationship, which inspired one of his signature pieces — Young Apollo, a ‘fanfare for piano’, which premiered in 1939.
‘I should just love to come and have a look at your windmill,’ he continued. ‘I have always wanted to do that, ever since reading Daudet’s Lettres De Mon Moulin [Letters From My Windmill, a 19th-century collection of short stories].’
Was Britten taken aback by Wulff’s boldness? Scotland speculates (based on lengthy meetings with Wulff, who died in 2016) that their fleeting trip to Siena probably revealed a lot to both of them.
Britten was by then openly gay — if discreetly, among friends, as homosexuality was illegal in Britain — and living with composer Lennox Berkeley, who was ten years older and deeply in love with him. Wulff was the precocious ingenue.
Unsurprisingly, Wulff’s arrival at The Old Mill was the emotional equivalent of a grenade, shattering Britten and Berkeley’s domestic tranquillity. A woman who knew Wulff at the time described him as ‘a beautiful creature . . . unusually lovely’. He was intelligent, sensitive and adored Romantic poetry.
As Scotland notes, Wulff was also a refugee, who had come from a broken family. He must have been aching for affection and in need of an older friend to guide him.
After supper on his first evening at The Old Mill, Britten played a Beethoven sonata which reduced Wulff to tears. With his ‘head full of [Johann] Goethe and [C. F.] Schiller, [Paul] Verlaine and [Charles] Baudelaire, [John] Keats and [Mary] Shelley’, writes Scotland, Wulff was dazzled by Britten, his warmth, his ‘larky schoolboy energy, and Ben was dazzled by Wulff’s looks and frisky boyishness’.
Years later, Wulff recalled the joy of their meeting in Italy as ‘being boys together’ and that same spirit fell on life at The Old Mill.
Showerheads were fixed in the boiler house, where they showered together ‘in utter decorum’, Wulff recalled, soaping themselves amid joyful laughter: ‘On a cold winter’s day we would scamper back afterwards into the warmth of the mill, making it a race to be first.’
The Old Mill, Snape, Suffolk, once home to Benjamin Britten. After supper on his first evening at The Old Mill, Britten played a Beethoven sonata which reduced Wulff to tears.
Wulff also played the piano. When he was invited to turn the pages for Britten at a recording, says Scotland, he was in heaven.
Britten had been writing a piano concerto as a gift for Berkeley — who was jealous of the young interloper — but began to see it as a means of seducing Wulff.
He was given advice on this by a friend, the poet W. H. Auden — advice that, as Scotland points out, would have him in trouble today. Auden, who was also gay, wrote in a letter to Britten that he should be quite friendly, but cold: ‘Remember, he wants to be mastered.’
What happened next, no one really knows. In later life, as a respectable married man who had changed his name to John Woolford and settled in Australia, Wulff flatly denied having had a sexual relationship with Britten. Perhaps that was true.
Or perhaps he was embarrassed and wanted to spare his wife.
What is clear, Scotland says, is that a mutual physical attraction lay at the heart of their relationship, intensified by their love of music, poetry and politics. Wulff’s passion for pacifism, anti-Fascism and the Labour movement would have chimed with the views of what Scotland calls ‘the Left-wing, gay brotherhood’ of the period, which included Britten, the tenor Peter Pears (later to become Britten’s partner for life), Auden and fellow poet Stephen Spender.
Wulff threw himself body and soul into the relationship. He wrote reams of passionate poetry, wondering in one poem where affection ends and desire begins.
Over the following few months, his weekend visits to The Old Mill became more frequent. Then he was invited to stay for Christmas. In December 1938, he wrote to ‘Darling Ben’ from Cambridge to say how much he was looking forward to the visit: ‘Till Xmas dearest. All my love . . . love, love, love . . . Oh my darling, I love you . . . I’m feeling absolutely desolate. Don’t ever leave me, darling xxx.’
On New Year’s Eve, he crept downstairs in the early hours to write a poem which seems to confirm what Scotland calls ‘a deeper phase’ in their friendship. It begins:
‘Lost to the worlds,
Beyond all stars,
Alone, yet one
Two beings lie . . .’
Britten (pictured) created an adoring coterie of teenage choristers and musicians (including actor David Hemmings, star of 1960s thriller Blow-Up, who was taken under Britten’s wing when he auditioned for one of his operas as a boy soprano).
Wulff polished the poem back home in Cambridge. When he sent it, Britten wrote a letter of thanks, ending: ‘Goodnight, my darling — wish “lost to the world” were going to be appropriate tonight & all other nights, too.’
Britten carried the poem in his breast pocket for years, alongside a picture of Wulff.
This friendship began to attract attention — and dismay. Berkeley was heartbroken at being elbowed aside for the young Apollo, and others feared Britten’s indiscretion might alert the police.
Britten was disturbed to hear from Auden that his ‘little friendship’ was being talked about on the Continent. The source of the rumours seemed to be Wulff’s father, who was (probably innocently) telling people his son was seeing a lot of Britten.
There may also have been an unspoken anxiety among some of Britten’s friends about how young and innocent Wulff seemed. Yes, he was 18, but Britten had first become entranced with him when he was 13. A large part of his charm seemed to lie in this childish love of being ‘boys together’.
In recent years, Britten’s relationship with several teenage boys has been examined. A book and subsequent documentary — Britten’s Children — examined his friendships with a coterie of adolescent boys he encountered while composing, including choirboys and young musicians.
Caution is required in looking at these friendships, given how suspicious recent sex-abuse scandals — in the Church, football, music schools and beyond — have made us. It is important to say that no one ever accused Britten of causing them harm.
Britten certainly felt there was part of him that had never grown up. Imogen Holst, his music assistant (daughter of composer Gustav Holst) once commented on the insightful way he had framed the lines in a song sung by boys in his opera Gloriana. ‘It’s because I’m still 13,’ he told her.
Actor David Hemmings told film-maker John Bridcut that Britten had been infatuated with him for two years: ‘Everybody asks me whether he “gave me one” . . .’ Hemmings said. ‘The answer to that, as I have often said, is: no, he did not. I have slept in his bed, yes, but only because I was scared at night . . . He loved me, he did, he did. But he loved me like a father, not a lover.’
Anne Wood, manager of the English Opera Group, was alerted to suspicions she felt unfair, she told Bridcut, but she made it her business to walk into rooms unexpectedly, to check his behaviour.
Librettist Eric Crozier said of Britten’s attraction to adolescent boys: ‘It was almost a return to his youth, but a kind of idealised image of himself at the age of 12, the gay, charming Lowestoft boy, unerringly skilful with a cricket bat or tennis racket . . . it was like a flirtation he carried on with any child he met, particularly young boys.’
That seems to be the case with most boys Britten encountered.
Wulff was different. The remnants of the composer’s correspondence and the poet’s reminiscence confirm a passionate connection that would have got them into trouble if made public.
In the event, Wulff began to have doubts about his sexuality. In London, as he waited to meet Britten in a gay bar, he suddenly felt ‘out of place’.
Confused and anxious, Wulff sought advice from Britten’s friend, Peter Pears.
This was a heaven-sent opportunity for Pears. He told Britten he must leave Wulff alone — that Wulff wasn’t ‘like that’. He also persuaded Britten to go America. They could travel together. The Government was bringing in conscription for single men turning 20 and it was clear war loomed.
In retrospect, it is clear Pears had designs on Britten himself. In America, they fell in love and became lifelong partners.
A heartbroken Wulff wrote a number of impassioned letters, but time and distance prised them apart. In 1942, back in London, they met briefly, almost as strangers, in St James’s Park.
Wulff, by then, was a strapping soldier, with a girlfriend. The 13-year-old Apollo who had blazed golden in Britten’s imagination was no more than a memory.
n Wulff: Britten’s Young Apollo, by Tony Scotland, is published by Shelf Lives at £24.
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