Nov. 22--Remarkable poetry resides in the fact that Benjamin Britten was born on Nov. 22, since in the Christian liturgical calendar that date marks the Feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Even after he became a famous composer Britten didn't make a big deal about it, although he did compose a choral Hymn to St. Cecilia in 1941-1942. The particular feast day on which he was born was in 1913, which means that Friday, Nov. 22, marks the centennial of that event.
Of course, nobody could have foreseen at the moment of his birth, in the resort town of Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast, that he would develop into a composer. The St. Cecilia coincidence probably would have escaped the notice of his father, a dentist with no musical proclivities, but it may well have crossed the mind of his mother, Edith, who loved music and would prove assiduous in steering her son, formally christened Edward Benjamin Britten, toward a musical path. In his new biography Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, Neil Powell writes of the birthday fluke: "As if that were not omen enough, he was given the first name not only of his father's young brother but, as Edith at least would have been very well aware, of England's most eminent living composer, Edward Elgar, who in the preceding five years had produced a flurry of major works."
By the time he died, 63 years later, Britten would be customarily hailed as not just the preeminent British composer of his time but even as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell in the late 17th century. Rankings of that sort are unnecessary, to be sure, and some of our English brethren were not willing to go quite that far, being reluctant to put aside their immutable nationalistic veneration of Elgar. Even Powell, setting out what he calls the "assumptions" on which he bases his book, begins: "The first is that Benjamin Britten was the greatest of English composers -- rivaled only by Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar -- and one of the most extraordinarily gifted musicians ever to have been born in this country." That must be painful to the ghosts of Taverner, Tallis, and Byrd.
Centennials tend to invite a flurry of interest in a subject, and there is no reason Britten's should depart from the norm in this regard. To be sure, Britten has not previously been underserved by biographers and musicologists, at least so far as English-language publications are concerned. Given the composer's status in the cavalcade of British music, the bookshelf already groaned with studies of the man and his music. Powell's biography is one of two that has gained widespread attention this year, and of the pair it is the more genial, accessible, and protective of its subject. Powell is an unabashed Britten fan, and his highly readable account of the composer's life conveys historical facts without delving into the music in an analytical way.
Any account of Britten's life necessarily touches on subjects that were controversial when he lived and in some cases still are. He was openly homosexual at a time when being so was illegal in Great Britain, and this did not make the going any easier for him when it came to the general public. On the other hand, it placed him in a circle of similarly gay characters -- W.H. Auden (his occasional collaborator), Christopher Isherwood, and many, many others -- who held prominent places in British artistic life during the midcentury decades. Britten, in fact, was unusual among them for being part of a well-established couple once he partnered up with the tenor Peter Pears in 1939. Since Britten was preternaturally reticent in private matters, he certainly had no desire to serve as a pioneer for what would emerge as the gay-liberation movement, but the matter-of-factness of his enduring relationship was doubtless inspirational to many other gay people at the time and in retrospect. Many people in Great Britain and elsewhere must have been astonished and heartened by the graciousness of Queen Elizabeth II, who elevated him to a life peerage (as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh) in the last year of his life and who, immediately following the composer's death, sent a letter of condolence to Pears, much as she would have to the spouse of any other departed worthy of the realm.
Their relationship was not entirely monogamous, and a more problematic aspect of Britten's life was what has sometimes been interpreted as an ongoing propensity for underage boys. Powell's biography strikes a defensive posture on this matter, insisting that Britten's friendships with a parade of lads stopped short of sexual impropriety. The historical record leaves room for ambiguity on this matter, but it seems likely that Powell's stance is correct. It basically mirrors the belief expressed in a 2006 book devoted entirely to examining this question, John Bridcut's Britten's Children, a nonsalacious study that situates Britten's friendships with adolescent boys in the context of his time rather than ours and that rather views Britten as a figure who forever saw part of himself as 13 years old and sought out friendships accordingly. Many of us will find the whole matter discomfiting. At this point, we could probably get by not dealing with it at all but for the fact that a considerable number of the composer's works were conceived with young performers specifically in mind or were centered on operatic characters who are abused boys, such as Peter Grimes' apprentices, Billy Budd, and Miles in The Turn of the Screw. In any case, Powell prefers to keep things uncomplicated: "Auden," he writes, "had never understood Britten's relationship with younger boys, in which the principal elements were a prep-school-masterish enjoyment of fun and games, a nostalgic wish to re-experience the happier part of his own childhood and a touchingly simple desire to do good."
The other major Britten biography to emerge this year is Paul Kildea's Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, which bespeaks a deeper degree of scholarship and insight. Kildea's credentials are impressive. His previous books include Selling Britten (2002), which provides brave confirmation of suspicions that Britten's status was not achieved independent of exceptional marketing efforts, and the very useful Britten on Music (2003), which assembles substantially all of the composer's writings on his own music as well as on compositions by others. Kildea served for several years as the head of music at the Aldeburgh Festival, which Britten co-founded in 1948, and as artistic director of Wigmore Hall in London -- so he speaks from a position of authority on matters concerning the composer and British musical life in general. He goes into considerable detail in his discussion of Britten's scores (which Powell shirks almost entirely) and is more comprehensive in relating historical circumstances, though not always with Powell's inviting readability. His penchant for using British vernacular expressions may win over readers in the U.K. yet grow wearying to Americans. Still, the writing is vivid. Commenting on the dictatorial stance Britten adopted at the Aldeburgh Festival, he writes:
"Tenor Robert Tear also viewed Aldeburgh in terms of a royal court (from before Henry VIII's break with Rome), identifying there a 'Pope, King, a couple of sycophantic academics and perhaps a handmaiden or two strewing palms.' Tear disliked what he identified as the reverence of Aldeburgh and its festival, 'an atmosphere laden with waspishness, bitterness, cold, hard eyes, with cabalistic meetings under the Cherry Tree with Pimms, with the inscrutability of the elite.' "
Kildea can be a bit prickly himself. One wishes, for example, that an editor had spared him the embarrassment of referring to Alan Bennett's play The Habit of Art (a fictionalized drama about Britten and Auden that many Santa Feans saw via an NT Live broadcast in 2010) as Bennett's "ordinary play The Habit of Art." He is more outspoken on the dicey sexual stuff than Powell is, and he never views his subject through the veil of hagiography. The portion of the book that has received the most attention is devoted to the original idea that Britten suffered from tertiary syphilis -- and, indeed, died from its repercussions. A heart ailment has always been identified as the culprit, and so it is here. But Kildea is convinced that Britten's terribly enlarged aorta resulted from untreated syphilis he had contracted decades earlier. The degree of this disfiguration was revealed only in the course of heart-valve surgery in 1973, which was conducted by Dr. Donald Ross, a pioneering South African physician who only a few years earlier had conducted the first heart transplant in the United Kingdom. With no evidence whatsoever, Kildea states that Pears "was likely the cause of infection," although Pears remained completely asymptomatic. It is the weakest expanse of Kildea's book, and his devotion to this theory leads him to discount other possibilities. He consigns the opposing belief of Dr. Michael Petch, Britten's principal cardiologist, to a single parenthetical sentence: "(Petch was never told of the syphilis and today is sceptical of the diagnosis, believing that the tests for endocarditis Britten underwent in 1968 should have revealed any infection.)"
On the whole, though, Kildea's new book is an impressive achievement, and it now sits alongside Humphrey Carpenter's 1992 volume Benjamin Britten: A Biography as the turn-to account of the composer's life. That's not to say that it answers all the questions. Moving back to that Hymn to St. Cecilia mentioned at the beginning of this column, we should note that Britten sketched it during the ocean crossing he and Pears took when returning to England following a period of residing and working in the United States. They lived hand to mouth during their American years, and here's a morsel Kildea drops into his account of that period (mention of which also appears in Powell's book, by the way): "Amid this financial hardship, Britten was approached over the directorship of the music department at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, which came with an astonishing salary of $32,000 ( 8,000). 'Later on I may find it necessary to hold such a position,' he told composer and academic Douglas Moore in declining, 'but for the time being I think I'll risk being a freelance composer, doing hack-work maybe, but in the composing line.' " That letter was dated June 24, 1941. Later that summer, Britten spent time on the West Coast. "It was in California," he wrote, "in the unhappy summer of 1941, that, coming across a copy of the Poetical Works of George Crabbe in a Los Angeles bookshop, I first read his poem, Peter Grimes." That immediately set him on the path of composing his first operatic masterwork, one of the towering operas of the 20th century, and New Mexico's loss became the world's gain.
"Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music" by Neil Powell is published by Henry Holt. Paul Kildea's "Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century" is published by Allen Lane/ Penguin Books.
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