BANG on cue for the centenary of Benjamin Britten comes this landmark new biography by Paul Kildea, complete with the latest skeleton to tumble out of the composer’s well-stocked closet.
Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century
by Paul Kildea
Allen Lane, 688pp, £30
Britten, we learn here, may have been suffering from syphilis. It was, according to the author, a congenital heart condition (“aortic incompetence”) that actually killed him, but the surgeon who operated is said to have found the aorta riddled with tertiary-stage syphilis; the diagnosis was never made public.
Neither Britten nor his long-term partner Peter Pears, from whom he would presumably have contracted it, was apparently aware of the disease, which often presented no external symptoms and commonly remained undiagnosed, especially among male homosexuals.
This sensational revelation aside – and the diagnosis has been vigorously contested – Kildea’s biography is indispensable on many counts. He gives short shrift to ill-founded allegations that Britten’s father was a paedophile, but writes sensitively (and often amusingly) about Britten’s own predilections and the fundamental ways in which they informed his works.
He’s incisive on the “bumbling amateurism” of the inter-war British cultural scene in which Britten grew up, with its second-rate musical administrators, impresarios and leading conductors (Britten particularly despised Boult and Sargent). He describes also the latent homophobia that was prevalent (William Walton, on learning that Britten was being offered the music directorship of Covent Garden – a post he wisely declined – was heard to mutter: “There are enough buggers in the place already, it’s time it is stopped.”)
Above all, he shows how Britten’s deeply held social convictions (he was a committed Left-leaning pacifist) shaped his entire oeuvre, seeing Peter Grimes as, in part, a critique of capitalism, and mounting a powerful defence of the much-maligned Owen Wingrave, an opera steeped in a loathing of war and the mindless drumbeat of Queen and country that provokes it. In fact, Kildea offers insights on a wide range of repertoire: it is an admirable feature of the book that it gives no less attention to the music than to the biographical aspects.
Not that he feels it incumbent on him to praise without qualification. He is interesting, for example, on The Rape of Lucretia, which he is not alone in finding dramaturgically flawed. And it is in this context that he discusses the sometimes unconvincing nature of Britten’s female characters.
Britten’s lack of empathy with female psychology, Kildea maintains, results in a series of characters (Ellen Orford in Grimes, Mrs Herring and Kate Julian in Owen Wingrave among them) with whom it is difficult to identify or sympathise.
Kildea has trawled comprehensively through the archives, drawing on recently published letters and diaries as well as first-hand reports from those who knew Britten – among them collaborators such as pianist Graham Johnson and composer brothers Colin and David Matthews (the latter’s own biography is due to be reissued this year). I’m not sure Kildea spells out as clearly as Matthews or John Bridcut (in his film and book about Britten’s Boys) the nature of the composer’s chaste obsession with prepubescent boys: Britten remained at heart a 13-year-old and it was that innocence he cherished in his young friends. Oddly, too, but evidently for reasons of news management – the syphilis revelation was redacted from advance copies – the discussion of Pears’s probable infidelities, and tension caused by the consequent imbalance in their relationship, occurs only in the final sections, not where it belongs.
Nevertheless, this is a masterly, highly readable account and the most comprehensive to date of the life and work of one of the 20th century’s great musical figures.