Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century Paul Kildea

Allen Lane, pp.688, £30, ISBN: 9781846142321

Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume VI, 1966-1976 Philip Reed and Mervyn Cook

Boydell Press, pp.880, £45, ISBN: 9781843837251

When Humphrey Carpenter published the first major biography of Benjamin Britten in 1992, many of the composer’s associates were still alive and breathing down his neck. Carpenter’s knowledge of the music wasn’t intimate, nor did he have available to him the primary source of the superb edition of Britten’s correspondence, now completed with a sixth 800-page volume covering the decade before his death in 1976: deadly dull though these letters intrinsically are, the magnificent accompanying annotation and detailed apparatus make them richly revealing.

Thus hobbled, Carpenter’s effort amounts to a broad-brush portrait and a gripping narrative, but also something of a rushed and unpolished job — unbalanced and half-digested, peppered with small errors and marred by a rather crude psychological portrait of a man obsessed with his mother and bewitched by pubescent boys.

This second major biography emerges as the long-meditated and authoritative corrective. Somewhat shorter than Carpenter’s, it is cleanly shaped and moves as swiftly and surely as the music it honours. As a conductor of Britten’s operas, a former head of music at Aldeburgh, and the author of several Britten-focused academic studies, Kildea is more deeply and thoughtfully immersed in the subject than Carpenter was, but he has a fine sense of social and cultural context too. Writing with crisp urbane elegance, he displays an acute sense of his subject’s convoluted psychology, and although he seems to become increasingly hostile to Britten as he gets older and more tetchily autocratic, he has no impulse either to debunk or sensationalise him.

Kildea addresses the headline subject of the composer’s paedophilia soberly and sensitively, downplaying the sexual motive and characterising Britten more as the pseudo-paternal school captain taking the fledgling fourth-former under his wing than as a predatory molester or abuser.

Kildea appears convinced that in 1938 the 24-year-old Britten did bed the willing 18-year-old Wulff Scherchen (still alive today and reticent on the subject), but the implication is that this was the only physically consummated relationship he had with anyone except the tenor Peter Pears, his partner from 1939 until his death and the inspiration for some of his greatest work. The terrible irony, as Kildea explains in his one startling speculation, is that through Pears’s casual promiscuity (or so one supposes) Britten might have been infected with a type of syphilis which exacerbated the cardiac weakness that prematurely killed him.

Kildea wisely refrains from reading too much into this, not least as Britten was totally unaware of his condition. He also resists the temptation to present the couple as poster boys for gay liberation avant la lettre. Britten and Pears were neither militant in their stance, nor bohemian in their habits. In their time, they looked to most of the world like a couple of confirmed bachelor chums, sleeping in separate bedrooms and respecting the conventions. That’s how they wanted it, in any case: the patina of middle-class respectability — crowned by the friendly attentions of royalty — mattered to them.

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Privately, they could be scratchy with each other. Britten loved Aldeburgh and a quiet life, Pears had more taste for the bright lights and a party. When Pears was away singing, Britten felt antsy and there would be rows down the telephone followed by mawkish penitence. But as Kildea puts it, ‘shared instinctive response to music was their pact’.

And that is the heart of the matter: the music always came over-ridingly first for someone who claimed that he ‘found reading music easier than reading books’, someone hailed by Michael Tippett as ‘the most purely musical person I have ever met’. Kildea gives a most touching and astute account of this phenomenon’s early development, casting a wry eye over the juvenilia (for all its fecundity, displaying no signs of genius) and making it clear why Britten was so lucky at the age of 12 to find in Frank Bridge a teacher who could crank up his talent and skill by introducing him to the vocabulary of European modernism.

Contemptuous of the sloppiness and complacence of the British musical scene, the tyro Britten emigrated to the more open-minded America in 1938, only to find that he needed his roots more than he needed his freedom; back in Aldeburgh, where he remained based for the rest of his life, he developed a new model of flexible, intimate and light-footed music-making which circumvented the cumbersome machinery of symphony orchestras and opera houses. Today what one might call the example of Aldeburgh remains a major aspect of his legacy, as profoundly influential as his composition.

However, this retreat into a parochial environment also exacerbated his neurotic self-protection and paranoia. ‘People walked on eggshells around him,’ Kildea says, and the list of colleagues (rather than friends, it should be emphasised) he ruthlessly cold-shouldered when they were no longer of direct use is disconcerting if not deplorable. ‘Britten’s corpses’, they called them. Whether his need to command untrammelled space in which to create and function can serve as an excuse for such murders is a moot point. In his defence, one could claim that they weren’t whimsical. They were made in the name of the music; the music came first.

Ironically, Kildea believes that Britten would have considered ‘betrayal’ to be his obsessive moral theme. I’m not sure that he did — or if he did, he was deceived. Much more pressing in the great operas is the idea of the forbidden love object, so disconcertingly alluring that it must be destroyed.

Britten was never smugly comfortable about his sexuality — it was a barbed-wire zone, marked ‘Danger: do not enter’.

Indignant at the sniggering Charles Mackerras, Britten furiously confronted him: ‘Because I like to be with boys and because I appreciate young people, am I therefore a lecher?’ Britten didn’t know how to answer this himself, and the question haunts Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and even Gloriana. Isn’t its absence the reason why the ‘War Requiem’ seems so windily theatrical and Owen Wingrave so weak and jejune?

Most readers will find something to argue with in Kildea’s reckoning. I’m sceptical of his high ranking of the Nocturne and Phaedra, for example. The comparison of the Britten family (his gruff ascetic father a dentist in Lowestoft) to the Schlegels in E.M. Forster’s Howards End seems to me misplaced — surely they would have had much more in common with the earth-bound Wilcoxes?

I’m also puzzled that he thinks Britten lacked ‘empathy’ with women. It’s certainly hard to think of two stronger female characters in postwar opera than Elizabeth or the Governess in The Turn of the Screw, and his warmly affectionate relationships with Peg Hesse, Marion Thorpe, Kathleen Mitchell and Imogen Holst scarcely bear out any charge of misogyny.

But any such reservations about specific judgments are only to be expected: Kildea is nobody’s patsy, towing an accepted line or bowing infatuated before an idol. His bracingly opinionated and beautifully articulated book brings all Britten’s complexities vividly to life.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated