Great Britten

Yes, there is more worth saying about the great composer’s complex character, says Kate Kennedy

March 7, 2013

There can be few musicians or concert-goers in the UK who are unaware that it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten this year. He is everywhere: a War Requiem here, a Peter Grimes there. Paul Kildea’s biography comes out in Britten prime-time. But do we really need another biography of the great composer? Kildea’s book powerfully makes the case that we do.

Despite the fact that so many people still with us today knew Britten, he remains a most enigmatic figure; a surprisingly elusive subject for a biography. One of the difficulties arises from the rather facile confusion between the man himself and his operatic characters. Britten was repeatedly drawn to repressed male characters, often played by his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, making the link stronger to the composer himself. In the violent social misfit Grimes, or the frustrated homosexual Aschenbach, we might well find traces of Britten. In fact, in the boy Tadzio, we can even find a striking resemblance to the young composer himself. Could we read Death in Venice as the old Britten contemplating his relationship to his younger self? Possibly, but his operas are not autobiography set to music. But if Britten wasn’t Grimes, or an emotionally stunted child prodigy in a man’s body, then who was he?

The answer, as Kildea finds, is a series of contradictions. According to his friends, he was “warm-hearted and full of fun”, but behind the charming mask “was another person, a sadist, psychologically crippled and bent”. “No man had more charm, could be more generous or kind” and yet “he could be quite petulant and waspish and bad tempered”.

Studies of Britten can be subject to an element of hagiography. It is surprisingly difficult to suggest that a piece of Britten’s is anything less than masterly. Such was his reputation in life that works such as the War Requiem were being trumpeted in the press as “masterpieces” even before they were first heard. This is quite some legacy to take on, and Kildea treads over the Britten eggshells as nimbly as one of Britten’s own fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Britten inadvertently courted controversy. Did he have inappropriate relationships with boys? The question has been asked time and again, with no proof that he did. Kildea sees Britten’s relationships with boys resembling more that of a head prefect or a father figure - Britten was no paedophile. Kildea makes much less of the interest in boys than previous biographers, which is refreshing. Instead, he has, with the publication of this book, added a new cat among the Aldeburgh pigeons. He claims Britten had syphilis, given to him by Pears, and that neither of them ever knew it. Gulp.

He died after a heart operation and a stroke. Kildea tells us that the surgeon who performed the operation confided to another cardiologist that he had seen Britten’s aorta “riddled” with syphilis. No sooner had Kildea announced this, however, than a doctor who cared for Britten in his final illness went public to say that the biographer’s claim “does not fit with everything else…there is no serological, bacteriological, pathological or histological support for the diagnosis”. There were another 13 people present in the operating theatre, and the idea that such a discovery could have been kept secret has been questioned. Hywel Davis, the cardiologist who gave Kildea the lead, is currently writing about it, so more discussion will inevitably ensue.

Controversial revelations aside, this is a biography that successfully negotiates a difficult balance between scholarly insight and readability. It is illuminating, powerful and moving, and is a fitting birthday tribute to one of our greatest musicians.

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