A sensitive look at a great musician’s life

Though Benjamin Britten was an eccentric and unlovable man, his music dominates Paul Kildea’s benchmark biography says Eamonn Lawlor

A sensitive look at  a  great musician’s life

Benjamin Britten A Life in the Twentieth Century

Paul Kildea

Allen Lane, £30.00; Kindle, £14.99

PAUL KILDEA has earned headlines and ‘scooped’ his rivals among Britten’s biographers, with his claim that their subject’s fatal heart condition was caused by syphilis — the prudish and monogamous composer being unaware that he had contracted the disease, (presumably from his partner, Peter Pears), many years before.

Read in context, 33 pages before the end of the book, the claim is all the more shocking.

Kildea is no sensationalist: he has given us the most authoritative, sensitive reading we have of Britain’s leading musician of the 20th century, a portrait so complete, the syphilis story comes almost as an afterthought — albeit a devastating one.

In this account the surgeon who discovered the infection while operating on Britten in 1973 kept it secret for the composer’s sake. Years after his patient’s death he told a heart specialist friend, who confirmed the diagnosis with the assistant surgeon at the operation, but still kept it from the public — until now.

In recent weeks the claim has been vigorously contested by Britten’s own heart specialist and by the anaesthetist present at the operation.

Kildea devotes just over four of his 565 pages to the story of the diagnosis. He states it as a fact, acknowledges later, only in parentheses, that Britten’s consultant, Michael Petch, doesn’t believe it, and enters into no discussion of Petch’s objections.

The controversy will continue. I, for one, will not wish to hear any more on the subject; I will however be returning to Kildea’s book for as long as I am listening to Britten’s music.

The sound of the waves on the Suffolk coast, evoked by orchestra and chorus in Peter Grimes; the voice of God, simply and ingeniously represented by tenor and alto in close harmony in Canticle II: such moments need no explanation, but they gain when Kildea makes them resound in the life out of which they came.

The life cannot explain the music. Britten once described how, in composing, “everything must give way to the ‘still small voice’ which is the heaven-sent guide to the next note … and which is the only thing in art which really matters.’ Kildea is a conductor as well as a musicologist, attuned to that ‘still small voice’ and thus equipped to build on the painstaking research of Humphrey Carpenter’s 1992 biography of the composer.

The new book supplies a real sense of the qualities that made Britten an outstanding performing musician as well as composer. It is a musician’s passionately committed response to Britten’s work: never lost in the detail, it keeps the voice always before us.

Out of the details emerge a picture of a prodigiously gifted individual, given every chance to develop his talent; filled with contempt for the English music scene; measuring himself against his European contemporaries, but resisting the trends that led them to compose for a sophisticated minority and alienate popular audiences.

Britten’s distrust of the London-based music industry would continue: he would form his own small opera group and centre his premières and recording sessions on his Suffolk base at Aldeburgh and the annual festival he and Pears founded there.

Throughout Kildea’s sketching-in of background detail — from the minutiae of the composer’s annual earnings to the giddy public excitement of the success of Peter Grimes (in London, weeks after the end of the World War II) and the private workings of the Britten-Pears love story — he is always aware of the music, and so are we.

The result is that everything is seen in proportion, in relation to the music: the quirks of his personality, and the events of his life, emerge only as features of the landscape in which his genius found expression.

It is by keeping that sense of proportion, with the music always in the foreground, that Kildea succeeds in writing an engaging and sympathetic biography of a seemingly unlikeable man. From a distance, at least, Britten was hard to like. In those who were admitted to his inner circle he inspired feelings which several of them compared to being in love. Time and again, however, his friendship was suddenly and brutally withdrawn when an individual’s loyalty fell into doubt or their usefulness came to an end.

The most famous casualty was WH Auden: the poet was the overwhelming intellectual influence on the young composer, only to be cast off later as ‘a bully’, all attempts at reconciliation rejected.

Britten’s easiest friendships, notoriously, were with the young boys in whose company he revelled and with whom he was liable to form passionate attachments. The Daily Mail recently drew a parallel between the BBC’s proposed programming for this Britten centenary year and its Jimmy Savile tribute programmes at the end of 2011.

This is preposterous. Even the Mail has to concede that the composer was no predator. The kisses and cuddles and bed-sharing (already well documented) make for uncomfortable reading, but overall the testimony of those involved suggests chaste, if eccentric, behaviour on the part of an individual who was sexually repressed in the extreme.

Kildea breaks no new ground in this respect, but he is concerned to rescue Britten’s operas from the assumption that they are all about his inner conflict over his sexual impulses, with innocence and corruption as the overarching theme.

This has been a cliché of Britten commentary for many years, and not without reason. In his first full opera, Peter Grimes (1945), the central character is responsible for the death of a young apprentice; in the comic opera, Albert Herring (1947), Albert the greengrocer’s assistant embarks on a night of debauchery — and so on, from the young sailor whose beauty and goodness lead to his destruction in Billy Budd (1951), to the boy Miles in The Turn of the Screw (1954), singing “I am bad, aren’t I?” and Tadzio, the boy, (played by a dancer), with whom Aschenbach falls in love in Death in Venice (1973). For Kildea, Britten is more concerned with betrayal: he argues the pacifist composer ‘was of the class and the generation-but-one so tragically betrayed by its elders in the bogs of the First World War’. He felt the betrayal with the same keenness as Wilfred Owen, whose lines he set so powerfully in the War Requiem (1962). Hence the subtitle of this book — and its achievement in situating the music so vividly amid the concerns of its time. Britten’s music is not to be approached as though it were a discourse on those concerns: he once noted that Mozart writes “about Figaro and his relationship with Susanna and the Countess, and is not always quite clear of the tremendous moral significance that these pieces are going to have for us”.

It was the same for him : he was not drawing moral conclusions but listening for the “still small voice” of his inspiration. In setting Benjamin Britten’s music against the events of his life and against the terrible history of his century, this book evokes for us the space in which he made that voice resonate: a space vast as the mysteries of love and human nature which so troubled him.

Picture: COMPLEX CHARACTER: In the year of his centenary, Benjamin Britten is still an intriguing biographical project.

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