Benjamin Britten & Southold
by Geoffrey K. Fleming & Dan McCarthy
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) lived and worked in Southold part of the time during his years here in America (1939-1942).
His arrival in America had an enormous impact on Britten, and the hamlet of Southold stood out to him. In 1939 he became friends with the Rothman family, who owned the local department and variety store in Southold. Britten and family patriarch David Rothman were a perfect match as they had a strong interest in classical music.
The Rothmans held weekly musical performances in their home that had recently included the likes of the noted physicist, Albert Einstein. Britten joined in quartets where Schubert was played while Peter Pears, his promising tenor friend, sang. In fact, Britten and Pears performed the original version of the song Tom Bowling at a recital at Southold High School on December 14, 1941.
Britten was instrumental in establishing a "Musical Advisory Board" for the Suffolk Friends of Music Orchestra in December of 1940. Douglas Moore, the respected composer and professor at Columbia University who summered in nearby Cutchogue, became chairman of the advisory board.
The years that Benjamin Britten spent on Long Island during World War II saw David Rothman about town regularly with the “soon-to-be-famous” British composer. Rothman arranged work for Britten and Pears, and also arranged for Benjamin Britten to be accompanist for the Southold Town Choral Society which later became today’s North Fork Chorale.
Their exchanges were phenomenal and something neither Rothman nor Britten would ever forget, this being especially true for Britten regarding the family's teenage son, Robert "Bobby" Rothman. Britten had become infatuated with young Bobby but in the end the relationship remained chaste, despite Britten's longings.
Britten even took up model building and bowling to be closer to the young boy. Author Neil Powell noted that Britten "... found he could talk more easily to an intelligent teenager than to most adults." James Wood, a London based book reviewer commented "He [Britten] was most himself, it seems, when permitted to enter into avuncular relations with handsome teenage boys, sex kept at bay – but the scene also charged – by strong force fields of shame and prohibition."
Britten never forgot Bobby Rothman and his time in Southold. He wrote and dedicated a piece of music to Rothman, entitled "The Trees They Grow So High," based upon a Somerset folksong which was completed before the spring of 1942.
The music historian and blogger, Ben Hogwood, noted that the work "...is, ultimately, a sad and uncomfortable song. The sorrowful, unaccompanied first verse gradually expands with the help of the piano, whose economical part is downcast and refuses to resolve properly in both parts, before the voice is left marooned once again at the end. While some of the folksong arrangements find Britten at his most mischievous and humourous, this is most definitely the other side of the coin, the composer lost in a sombre reflection and temporarily beyond consolation."
Britten returned to England shortly after his sojourn here and pursued composing what became some truly outstanding operatic and orchestral works. He helped to found the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 along with Pears and Eric Crozier. Many of Britten’s works were first performed at that Festival.