Whatever one may think of Benjamin Britten’s place in the history of music, there is no doubt that his life provides a fascinating and insightful look into the place of the artist in the twentieth century.
In Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, Britten emerges as an intensely creative man, compulsive in many regards (as many creators are), not always nice or what we would call honorable, and often in conflict between his natural impulses and the demands of his career. The speed with which he composed is legendary, and although he is often cited as being a very uneven composer, there is no doubt that the body of his work forms a significant contribution to the musical literature of his time.
Britten was the youngest of four children, growing up in a more-or-less normal environment in the early years of the twentieth century. He was in many regards the favored child. Born on November 22, 1913 (the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron of music), he began composing very early: his earliest known work was composed at the age of five, a four-bar setting of some nonsense words included in a play of his own creation. As Britten recounted, “the result looked rather like the Forth Bridge, in other words hundreds of dots all over the page, connected by long lines all joined together in beautiful curves. . . . When I asked my mother to play it, her look of horror upset me considerably.” He did, nevertheless, continue on to become one of Britain’s foremost composers, gaining recognition in the early 1930s through BBC broadcasts of his works.
Britten seemed, for most of his life, to be ambivalent about his sexual orientation. His early friends included W. H. Auden, who encouraged him quite openly to explore his homosexual leanings. Much has been made in some quarters of his predilection for teen-aged boys, although Carpenter, in interviews with several of these proteges, finds no evidence that these relationships ever went beyond what was proper. It seems more as though Britten had an ideal in mind of a certain kind of innocence and a deep need to act as mentor; at one point, he prevailed upon a close friend to share his son so that he could be a father to him. Britten’s long-time relationship with tenor Peter Pears, whom many considered his Svengali, was accepted among his circle, although many of his acquaintances were what we would refer to today as “clueless.” (Keep in mind that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the 1970s.) It is hard to tell what impact, if any, this had on his music: although a lifelong pacifist, for the most part he never, after World War II, made a public issue of his politics, preferring to let his music express his opinions, which it did very subtly, a kind of reticience which is evidenced in his personal life as well. (One exception to the foregoing is his War Requiem, which is certainly political and not particularly subtle.) Although he rejected the idea that he was essentially a composer of operas, it is nevertheless through his operas that his thought was best expressed.
Carpenter’s biography is exhaustive and detailed, but nevertheless captivating reading. He has made full use of extensive material from Britten’s and Pears’ letters, interviews with Pears and others of Britten’s family and circle of friends, and published accounts to draw a fully rendered portrait of both Britten the composer and Britten the human being. Included in the narrative are discussions of various of Britten’s major works, valuable because they are detailed and contextual, relating each work to Britten’s own history and vocabulary as well as to Britten’s own personal themes, which can perhaps be summed up as “the outsider and society.” This makes the book an extraordinary tool for students or others interested in having a firm grasp of Britten’s musical thinking. The discussions also include the contemporaneous critical reactions to Britten’s works, and often those of the performers as well.
By the same token, unless one is supremely interested in this kind of detailed explication, the discussions may be heavy going in a narrative that is otherwise quite fascinating. This is a biography that seems to be not so much interested in advocacy as impartial examination – Britten, who was not always a nice man, is there, warts and all. Well written and fully researched, it includes a chronological list of Britten’s works (including two early works, the one cited above and a song: “DOYOU NO THAT MY DADDY HAS GONE TO LONDON TOAY” from the same period), as well as a bibliography, an extensive listing of sources for the quotes included in the book, and acknowledgments that illuminate the wide range of resources that contributed to this biography.
We don’t often have the opportunity to see into the mind of a creative artist. Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten is such a window, and a solidly supported and carefully rendered view, at that. It also happens to be very well written and engaging.
(Faber & Faber, 1993)