Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century
Author: Paul Kildea
Benjamin Britten was Britain's greatest twentieth-century composer - and in the eyes of many, the greatest since Purcell (a figure who often inspired him) 300 years earlier. Britten broke decisively with the romantic, nationalist school of figures such as Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams and recreated English music in a fresh, modern, European form. With Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) he composed arguably the last operas - from any composer in any country - that have entered both the popular consciousness and the musical canon.
He did all this while carrying two disadvantages to worldly success - his passionately held pacifism, which made him very suspect to the authorities in the years during and immediately after the Second World War - and his homosexuality, specifically his forty-year relationship with Peter Pears, for whom many of his greatest operatic roles and vocal works were created. One of the strengths of Kildea's book is the way it traces the development of this relationship - its frailties and anxieties as well as its centrality to them both - and portrays their life together. For Britten, that life was increasingly lived in and around Aldeburgh, whose atmosphere and personalities form another wonderful dimension to the book. Kildea shows clearly how Britten made this creative community, notably with the foundation of the Aldeburgh Festival and the building of Snape Maltings, but also how costly the determination that this required was in terms of his friendships and the lives of some of those around him.
Above all, this book helps us understand the relationship of Britten's music to his life, and takes us as far into his creative process as we are ever likely to go. Kildea reads dozens of Britten's works with enormous intelligence and sensitivity, and always in a way which those without formal musical training can understand. It is one of the most moving and enjoyable biographies of a creative artist of any kind to have appeared for years.