There are certain composers — Berlioz, Liszt and Bruckner among them — who will never be to everybody’s taste yet whose music will always inspire impassioned devotion. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) is sometimes described as the most significant English composer after the death of Henry Purcell in 1695. For me, this is such a staggering overvaluation that it recalls P.G. Wodehouse’s line about “the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of breath” — and yet there is no questioning the sincerity behind such statements, and they are not as rare as one might think.
Nobody will deny that Britten was an extraordinary musician. He had composed more than 500 works by age 14; he was an adept chamber pianist and a supreme accompanist; and, late in life, he became a master entrepreneur when, with partner Peter Pears, he founded the Aldeburgh Festival in a Suffolk sea town. He championed the works of his teacher, the much-neglected Frank Bridge, and he made revelatory recordings of the still-puzzling music of Percy Grainger, an Australian composer who straddled folk music and the avant-garde with earnest awkwardness. And Decca, Britten’s long-time record label, recorded almost of what he wrote, an honor that helped disseminate his music to the world.
Perhaps Neil Powell’s new biography, “Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music,” released to celebrate the composer’s centenary, will find a home among his ardent admirers. The author — a poet of some renown and the author of a family biography of Kingsley Amis and his son Martin — is best on the music. “Out of this chaos, the majestically serene Requiem Aeternum emerges [in the “Sinfonia da Requiem”]: here a sombre, stately flute tune gives way to one of Britten’s most rapturous reaching-for-eternity themes before the piece ends in a mood of resigned tranquillity,” he writes. “The ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ lasts only twenty minutes, but it encompasses a world as vast as that of a Mahler symphony; indeed, when it is sometimes programmed with one of the larger Mahler symphonies, one can have a strange sense of it being nowhere near as long yet somehow just as big a work.”
This is all to the good, but too much of the book seems a one-sided, flattened and defensive hagiography when it is not merely a grim mustering of facts.
Not that there is no humor to be found by the close reader: What can anybody do but giggle at a statement at once so transcendently gushy and rigidly qualified as “the String Quartet was by far the most important work Britten completed during the second half of 1941”?
And, instead of letting us simply evaluate the occasional negative criticism of the opera “Billy Budd” for ourselves, Powell finds it necessary to pre-dismiss any and all heretics. Therefore, Ernest Newman, the pioneering biographer of Wagner and a leading figure in English musical life for half a century, is labeled “obtuse” for comparing “Budd” to “HMS Pinafore” (would that it had one-10th the spark!), and the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is dubbed “reliably idiotic” when he refers to “Budd” as “Twilight of the Sods.”
Indeed, for those of us with a more measured appreciation of Britten — who can recognize the enormous power of the music drama “Peter Grimes,” who will be carried along by the “War Requiem” as it passes and then forget it by morning (quick — try to hum a phrase) and will run like hell before subjecting ourselves to another bleated performance of his opera “Death in Venice” — this book offers very little. It is all encomium, a sermon to a select choir that makes claims that are difficult for even the most well-intentioned outsider to go along with.
Indeed, this Britten all but walks on water. In his introduction, Powell immediately acknowledges the composer’s “fondness for adolescent boys,” then puts his foot down: “His conduct . . . was exemplary and is therefore the occasion for neither prurience nor evasiveness.” In fact, this is very much a matter of debate, one that has been carried on with some heat recently in the United Kingdom press. Certainly, there is more “proof” that the adult Britten regularly kissed and slept, however chastely, with 13-year-old children than there is concerning the crimes alleged of, say, Michael Jackson.
Different times? Sure — and most of the boys (and their parents) who were associated with Britten remembered him fondly. Yet the topic is an important one and deserves more than the special pleading that Powell delivers. Such matters are addressed more forthrightly elsewhere, notably in Humphrey Carpenter’s “Benjamin Britten: A Biography” and John Bridcut’s television documentary and subsequent book, both titled, simply, “Britten’s Children.”
This fawning volume may be the right biography for the Aldeburgh Festival to stock in its gift shop.Those with a serious interest in Britten will want to look elsewhere.
Page is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California.
By Neil Powell
Henry Holt. 508 pp. $37