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Book Review: Benjamin Britten – A Life For Music

By (August 7, 2013) 2 Comments

Benjamin Britten: A Life for Musicbritten
By Neil Powell
Henry Holt, 2013

In the first week of January, 1942, Serge Koussevitzky, the gregarious and imperious conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, presented the Sinfonia da Requiem of British composer Benjamin Britten to a skeptical audience in large part composed of blue-haired old Back Bay matrons who tended to like their classical music just the same as they liked their husbands: presentable, a bit fruity, and at least 200 years old. Instead of any of that, the ladies (and the rest of the audience) got a short work – around 20 minutes long – of utterly uncompromising grimness, written when its composer was 26 years old. At a Beacon Hill reception after the final performance, Koussevitzky (as familiar with those ancient parlors as he was with the bank balances that upkept them) presented the ladies with the composer himself – slim, hound-faced, neatly dressed. Once the conductor’s typically voluble opening comments were concluded, the composer was invited to come up to the grand piano and say a few words. But a few words were more than he could manage: in response to the room’s polite applause, he smiled, waved, ducked his head a bit – and promptly sat back down.

Annie Cabot, the sister of Judge Charles Codman Cabot, later remarked that the composer was determined to remain as “enigmatic” as his composition.

Enigmatic, perhaps, but almost immediately famous: Koussevitzsky took the occasion of the Sinfonia performances to commission a work from Britten, and that work eventually became the opera Peter Grimes, and Peter Grimes made Benjamin Britten immortal. Other such iconic works were to follow, including operas like The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd and his haunting and often-performed War Requiem, as well as several song cycles he composed for his performing partner and life-long lover Peter Pears. Only a few years after those Boston performances, as Neil Powell points out in his excellent new biography, Britten’s place in the world of music seemed assured – and problematic:

By the summer of 1948, Britten’s international reputation as a major composer was assured; he and his partner were settled in an attractive and comfortable house in the place where he knew he belonged; and he had triumphantly created in Aldeburgh a festival which exemplified his most deeply held principles about music and community. So why wasn’t he happy? One reason, not to be underestimated, is the fact that, for anyone prone to depression, the moment when accumulated successes naggingly inside ‘Now you should be happy’ can be the most depressing of all. And Britten hated the incidental consequences of his increasing fame: among the most vexatious of these was overhearing people talking about him when he travelled by train between Suffolk and London.

That dual tone – consummate, almost offhand mastery of the facts of Britten’s life running right alongside a well-written by not entirely convincing psychological probing – characterizes Powell’s work and sets it apart from the other major Britten biographies such as the censorious hagiography of Humphrey Carpenter’s Benjamin Britten or the more meticulous but also more distractingly inflammatory Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century by Paul Kildea. The inescapable impression of Carpenter’s work is that he thinks Britten’s life would have been all but exemplary if only the composer hadn’t been homosexual or known any homosexuals. Kildea is a bit more tolerant on the subject of homosexuality – but not of homosexuals, especially Pears, who gets posthumously accused of giving Britten a fatal case of tertiary syphilis he never had. Tolerance like that nobody needs.

Tolerance is the watchword of Powell’s book, but its subject is still eluding the attention of those blue-haired old ladies, among whose ranks now sits our author, worshipfully attentive, program clutched, ready to affirm. He takes us to 1951 and sets out a modest-seeming agenda:

The two mid-century myths about Britten, closely linked and equally untrue, were that he had surrounded himself in Aldeburgh wth a homosexual coterie and that he had betrayed his social principles by sycophantic fawning on members of the aristocracy.

That “equally untrue” is exactly the kind of flag biographers should plant, and Powell is as vigorous and readable a defender of Britten’s life as the 21st century is likely to produce. Every page of A Life for Music bristles with learned, even-handed defense. Indisputable evidence, for instance, for a homosexual coterie at the Aldeburgh festival during Britten’s time there is dutifully disputed. Extensive first-hand accounts, for instance, of Britten’s fawning on members of the aristocracy are countered with second-hand accounts saying no such fawning ever happened. And further allegations – that, for instance, the man was cold and repellently self-absorbed, or that the man’s music could be woodenly cerebral? Reader, tell it not in Gath, nor publish it in the streets of Ashkelon: this is a “Benji” Britten who could maintain his fussy virtue even while visiting the infamous bygone Turkish baths in Jermyn Street with Christopher Isherwood when the world was young (“it wasn’t,” we’re informed, “quite what he wanted”).

Powell is a very good listener to Britten’s music (so, to give him due credit, is Kildea – but in the midst of even his best musicological analyses, most readers familiar with this book’s notorious conclusion, instead of hearing the warbling of wood-notes wild, will keep hearing that word), and he has a poet’s knack for the smooth-sharp turn of phrase. He says of Britten’s Abraham and Isaac, for instance:

[it] has become the best known and most performed of Britten’s five Canticles … and it is easy to see why. Although it runs for little more than a quarter of an hour, it shares the mysteriously coiled-up emotional force of Billy Budd, and, like the opera, it demands of the secular listener (who will be appalled by this whimsically vindictive God) an imaginative acceptance of its own terms.”

And about one of the many little imbroglios surrounding the Aldeburgh festival he quips, “Had all these departures actually taken place, there might have been some difficulty in finding anyone in a position to accept anyone else’s resignation.” His soaring final assessment of Britten’s importance cannot be gainsaid for either sincerity or eloquence, and throughout the book he maintains a rather charming tendency not to take himself too seriously:

Just as everyone seems to have personal favourites among Britten’s work, so most of us must own up to blind spots and regrets. My own major blind spot – as the attentive reader will already have gathered – concerns the three church parables: this is partly because, through no fault of their own, they bump into other prejudices of mine, and I may get over it.

Frequent readers of biographies will pause in pure gratitude over a note like that “and I may get over it,” and there are plenty of such notes in Powell’s work. Using this book, some rough beast still slouching toward Aldeburgh will finally write the definitive Britten biography, very likely in our lifetime.

But for now, even baited with tolerance and understanding, the fox is still in the field, as wary of our rude forensics as he was of all that well-mannered Brahmin adulation.