Book review: Benjamin Britten: A Life In The Twentieth Century by Paul Kildea

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IT IS deeply regrettable that this will become known as the biography which claimed that Britten died from syphilis (an oral anecdote from a close friend of the doctor who performed heart surgery on Britten, now disputed by others).

Benjamin Britten: A Life In The Twentieth Century

Paul Kildea

Allen Lane, £30

There is far more to this book than its flourished revelation. It strikes an especially discordant note in that Kildea is elsewhere judiciously sceptical about many of the other rumours and legends to have swarmed around Britten, from suppressed paedophilia to his homosexuality being the result of an abusive father and/or domineering mother. (Kildea skewers one such myth neatly: although Britten’s mother may have boasted about the four “B”s – Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Britten – it’s telling that the same story is attached to Bela Bartok). As Kildea says in the introduction, depending to whom you talk and whose reminiscences you read, Britten was “loving, spontaneous, loyal, corrupt, humorous, humourless, soulless, courageous, weak, abnormal, flawed, beautiful, ugly, petulant, secretive, wonderful, crippled, sadistic, charming, great, hateful”.

What is not in dispute is that, even more than that with the tenor Peter Pears who shared Britten’s life for 39 years and for whom many of his greatest works were written, Britten’s most important relationship was with music. This was a boy who at the age of 14 was greeted by a new music master with the words “So you’re the little boy who likes Stravinsky?” He could already, in the absence of gramophone or radio, hear music through reading scores. He was already trying to compose them. This devotion created the most remarkable volte-face in 20th century music. The homophony of Britten’s name is not mere chance: he put Britain on the map musically. Largely absent from the 18th and 19th century European developments in music, Britten created a series of operas still treasured and performed today; many orchestral works of distinction, from the “easy” Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra to the Op. 68 Cello Symphony; a wide body of songs; and the staggering War Requiem (Britten, a conscientious objector and pacifist, gave recitals with Yehudi Menuhin to Belsen survivors).

Kildea’s biography is a good mixture of detail and sweep, and of the life and the work. Britten remains something of an enigma – his touchiness could be petty, his chaste adoration of teenage boys is presented as both pitiable and queasily innocent in our post-Savile days. There is some wonderful material on the projects that never came to light: operas of Anna Karenina and Mansfield Park, a setting of his friend and then foe WH Auden’s glorious For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Kildea is especially good on the amateurism and grand-standing, the sight-reading and lack of seriousness that typified British orchestras during Britten’s youth. That Britten never composed a series of “European” symphonies, and was always coy with the symphonic form, is less about Shostakovich and more about the average remuneration of the third French horn in the London Philharmonic.

I would always prefer to hear more about what Britten thought about Mahler than Princess Margaret, and Kildea is wonderful on the music – I loved his description of “skittish harmonies” – even when having to tell us about the origins of the fall-out with the Earl of Harewood. Whether or not Britten had syphilis is supremely unimportant. «