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Settling Scores Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

By Paul Kildea (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 666pp £30)

Benjamin Britten’s centenary this year would not be complete without a new biography that its publishers are selling as the definitive life of the greatest British composer of the 20th century. Sadly, any reader who swallows either contention may be disappointed.

Paul Kildea ought to have written a superb book. He has published two other admirable works on Britten, the first of which, Selling Britten, was expanded from the thesis for his Oxford doctorate. In this biography, he has discovered the shocking medical fact that Britten died partly as a result of tertiary syphilis, contracted it seems from his promiscuous partner Peter Pears. Yet for all that this supposedly comprehensive book falls short. A truly definitive biography would use a wider range of sources, display a more open mind, and demonstrate a stricter attention to the facts. And it is debatable, too, whether Britten is the greatest British composer of the 20th century. He was a great composer, even a genius. But, equally, a few of us have our blood chilled when we hear some of what he wrote after the age of forty, an age at which the two other modern British titans – Vaughan Williams and Elgar – had hardly got going. As this biography unfailingly shows, Britten in the last twenty or so years of his life became a rather nasty piece of work – traits all too evident to those with whom he collaborated – which found expression in a lack of warmth in the music of that period.

The story is all here: the precocious talent in childhood in Lowestoft and at Gresham’s, the celebrity in 1930s London with Auden and Isherwood, the escape to America as war neared, and the success and fame in the postwar period. However, Kildea seems obsessed with Britten’s homosexuality, and obsessed too with settling scores against those who found the homocentric atmosphere of Aldeburgh too much. He brands the acclaimed Heldentenor Jon Vickers, whose role as Peter

Grimes he manifestly dislikes, ‘grumpy and homophobic’ (a risk most of us would not take with the laws of libel). He relishes Britten telling off Charles Mackerras for making a mild joke about the number of boys at Aldeburgh, without questioning the reasons for Britten’s absurd overreaction, and forgetting that at the time homosexuality was, however iniquitous the law, illegal. He even kicks the vicar of Aldeburgh for some ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons against homosexuality, allegedly

Britten photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1945

made at the time of the first festival in 1948, but of which he offers no examples. Of course Britten’s sexuality influenced his music, as is clear from the operas and their fixation with young men and boys. There is a danger – and the author succumbs to it – of allowing this powerful current to override everything else.

Although Kildea imposes the values of the 21st century on the mid-20th, he also provides plenty of context. He wishes to emphasise the importance not just of Britten’s sexuality, but also of his pacifism.

However, his grasp of history is not always strong. He writes of Britten’s distaste at the ‘retribution’ of Allied bomber raids on Essen and Hamburg in 1943; but these were strategic raids, designed to harm the German war effort, not simply an exercise in revenge.

A proper evaluation of Britten’s pacifism would have been useful. The experience of the Great War was enough to turn all but the most psychopathic off the idea of conflict. It was a pointless atrocity. Its worst consequence, however, was the Second World War. Britten’s pacifism, which would have been justified in the slaughter of 1916, just looked gutless in 1940. What did he expect would have become of him, and other homosexuals and leftists, had everyone chosen not to put country first and let the Nazis invade Britain? What did he make of Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals on the Continent? Or of the murder of prominent Jewish musicians, who staffed orchestras and played his music? Kildea is too soft on this woolly, naive and cowardly thinking. The civilisation in which Britten relaunched his reputation with Peter Grimes in 1945 was one secured by the sacrifices of others. He retained this idiotic view right to the end, refusing to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and believing the Americans were ‘occupying’ an airbase near Aldeburgh.

He also relies too often on supposition – and sometimes this borders on the offensive. He guesses that the composer and future professor of music at Cambridge who branded Britten, wrongly and offensively, a ‘Jew boy’ was Patrick Hadley. He provides no evidence for this, and it is a slur on Hadley’s posthumous reputation. A failure by Arthur Bliss, when BBC Director of Music in 1943, to ask Britten to conduct some of his own music is described (with a sneer) as being the result of Britten’s pacifism. Again no proof is offered. And a ‘disgruntled elderly composer’ is said to have remarked after the war that if Britten blew his nose someone would make a record of it. Kildea puts ‘Vaughan Williams?’ in parentheses. How does he know? And if he doesn’t, why suggest it? Hadley, Bliss and Vaughan Williams were all looked down on by Britten and his circle. It seems that a new generation of the clique has picked up the baton.

Kildea also allows himself the odd riot

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