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James Wood reviews ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Paul Kildea and ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Neil Powell · LRB 19 December 2013

James Wood reviews ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Paul Kildea and ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Neil Powell · LRB 19 December 2013

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James Wood reviews ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Paul Kildea and ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Neil Powell · LRB 19 December 2013
James Wood reviews ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Paul Kildea and ‘Benjamin Britten’ by Neil Powell · LRB 19 December 2013

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Heat in a Mild Climate
James Wood
 Benjamin Britten: A Life in the 20th Century
 by Paul Kildea Allen Lane, 635 pp, £30.00, January, ISBN 978 1 84614 232 1
 Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music
 by Neil PowellHutchinson, 512 pp, £25.00, January, ISBN 978 0 09 193123 0
For someone growing up with the music of Benjamin Britten, it was sometimes hard to recallthat his last name was not ‘Britain’. The race that Nietzsche had deemed heavy-hoofed andunmusical, whose last truly great composer had been Purcell, a nation that had been doingnothing very much, musically, but warbling in cathedrals for a couple of centuries, hadsomehow managed to produce a 20th-century composer of international stature, whose lastname was that of the nation itself. We’d done it! Here was Benjamin Britain OM, ‘BaronBritain of Aldeburgh’, whose
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra
 was as close to statemusic as a piece not actually the national anthem could be, and which cleverly merged spiky modern fugue with a stately theme from Purcell himself. In the same way, his many songsand adapted folk songs sounded a bit old and a bit new, or a bit English and a bit Continental.Palatable modernity: a good postwar f lag under which to assemble. No wonder the schoolsystem flew it so often, in those countless ‘musical appreciation’ classes. Approved, canonical Britten was also present outside school – fittingly, in church. Nocontemporary composer of similar standing had written as much sacred music for choirs. AtDurham, as a cathedral chorister, I sang his sparkling Te Deum and Jubilate, and the beautiful anthems
 Hymn to St Cecilia
 (classy words by Auden, usefully decent treble solo)[♪listen ] and
 (eerie plainsong effect, also with co veted treble soloopportunity).[♪ listen ] In the cathedral, thrillingly at night, that enormous building dark andmysterious beyond our spotlit oasis, we thrashed our way  through an evening performanceof
 Noye’s Fludde
, aided by a few glamorously affectless university string play ers. This isBritten’s great piece of community music-theatre, his version of the medieval Chester miracleplay, premiered in 1958 at the Aldeburgh Festival, in Orford church. It is a sacred incitementto amateurism: a small professional orchestra anchors the excitement, while children areallowed to saw at violins, trill through recorders, yawp down bugles, and hit various items of domestic percussion, including sandpaper and many mugs slung on strings. I was Ham, oneof Noah’s sons (the three sons, Britten specifies, should have ‘well-trained voices and lively personalities. They should not be too young – perhaps between 11 and 15’). But the honour was tarnished. On dress rehearsal day, I clumsily trod on a plastic bag belonging to the
 
Bishop of Durham’s son (envied and reviled because a chauffeur drove him to school, thoughin a modest Citroën 2CV). The bag contained eight mugs, collected in the Bishop’s Palace,painstakingly chosen for their precise ventriloquism of an octave.There was, of course, an unofficial Britten, one we choristers knew little about. This one wasnot the coaxer of communities but perhaps their opponent or dissident. He was thecommitted pacifist and conscientious objector, the creator of the
 Sinfonia da Requiem
 (1940),[♪ listen ] commissioned and then rejected by the Japanese government, officially because it was too melancholy and too ‘Christian’, but probably also because it assaults anddeconstructs martial patriotism, replacing it (in a gentle, Mahlerian final movement) with a vision of comity and brotherhood. He was the explorer of shifting tonalities, waywardharmonies, creeping chromaticism. He was the composer drawn to the gullies between notes,the almost-mystic of the spare Third String Quartet (1975). He was the homosexual whoseoperas like
 Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw
 and
 Death in Venice
 broach andrepress difficult erotic material: same-sex desire, murderous lust, the love of boys and youngmen, the contamination of innocence. Had we but known it, we might have found most of this other Britten hiding in the joyous racket of
 Noye’s Fludde
: all those young boys, for onething; an apparently Christian pageant that sometimes feels more like a complaint againstGod than a celebration; a body of musicians designed – because of the presence of so many children – to be out of tune with itself, so that the notes are constantly shifting and wavering,unsettling the consolations of Tallis’s Canon (which is sung as the cast processes out of thechurch); a homespun cacophony.Two biographies, by Paul Kildea and Neil Powell, intelligently appraise this official andunofficial Britten, and are rich with contradiction. Britten was quietly radical and quietly conservative. He was a joiner and a separatist: he lived most of his life in Suffolk, well away from London, which he disliked, and became that county’s most famous native son. Theannual Aldeburgh Festival, which he and his partner Peter Pears founded, was in many waysscrupulously communitarian, involving local halls, churches and craftsmen. But many feltthat Britten ran it with iron caprice, surrounded by a gang of insiders, quickly dismissingthose who fell out of favour. Warm, simple, even a little childlike with those he trusted, hecould become unreadably distant with those he did not. When Auden, who for slightly mysterious reasons had been dropped, sent him a letter about his opera
Gloriana
, Brittenreturned it to him in the same envelope, torn into tiny pieces.In later life, grandly established, he was commissioned to write a song-cycle for the queenmother’s 75th birthday, got the queen to open the Maltings, his fine new festival hall, andholidayed with minor European royalty. But he was himself of solidly middle-class origin, theson of a Lowestoft dentist, and often seemed to care very little about social status, just as longas his orderly days allowed for hours of composition and music-making. He seemed averse toformal politics, yet his life was constituted by unavoidably political gestures: his pacifism, hisdeparture to the United States on the eve of the Second World War, the themes of many of his operas, his friendship with Soviet musicians like Rostropovich and Shostakovich, and hishomosexuality, calmly professed in his long, stable relationship with Peter Pears, mostly in atime of legal prohibition.
 
‘It’s very odd you know, but it’s never happened before in the middle classes,’ Britten’s motheronce said about her son’s musical genius. Perhaps this, then, is the originating contradiction:prodigiousness in the parlour, heat in a mild climate. The English bourgeoisie, good forparsons, soldiers and schoolmasters, doesn’t produce great composers. Britten was never bohemian (like Auden, say, a difference which perhaps contributed to the death of their early friendship), and for much of his life managed things – or had things managed for him – as if he were still in boarding school. Suffolk summers, even when Britten was middle-aged,involved cricket, tennis, swimming, brass-rubbing in local churches. And school food, also.There is a wonderful moment in Tony Palmer’s film about Britten,
 A Time There Was
, whenthe composer’s housekeeper, Miss Hudson, explains in her beautiful East Anglian accent, what kind of food he and Pears liked:They were home-cookin’ lovers, but Mr Pears come home from abroad and he’d bring a
Continental 
 recipe for me to do; he was more
 for
 food than Mr Britten …Mr Pears would say: ‘Well, Mr Britten likes nursery food, you know, ’e likes hisnice milk pudding.’ I said, ‘Yes, but he likes it nice, nice creamy milk pudding’ …Mr Britten also liked Spotted Dog [camera briefly rests on dachshund curled up by Miss Hudson’s side] … you never had to stint with anything, but Mr Brittenhad to be careful because he hadn’t got strong insides like Mr Pears had.But the English bourgeoisie is never really as bourgeois as it seems; what V.S. Pritchett calledpractical madness is always invading. There was some of that at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road,Lowestoft, where Britten was born in 1913. Edith Britten, a pianist and singer of reasonabletalent, relentlessly pushed her brilliant youngest son, who was composing from about the ageof six. Basil Reeve, a family friend, thought that Edith comprehensively ‘ran’ Benjamin’s life,and said that she was determined he would become ‘the fourth B’, to join Bach, Beethovenand Brahms. Daily, after lunch, Benjamin played Wagner’s
 Siegfried Idyll 
 to his mother.Edith intervened at school, in order to clear more space for her son’s music-making, andgathered a fine group of teachers for him including, momentously, the composer Frank Bridge. Britten’s father, Robert, the dentist, is more mysterious. He was deeply unmusical;Basil Reeve and others thought that he had no faith in his son’s ability to make a musicalcareer. But there is an intensely moving letter, written by Robert on the first successful run-through of his son’s work,
 A Boy Was Born
, in 1933; surely Paul Kildea is too cool when hedescribes this letter as evincing merely ‘warmth and approval’. It is a peal of delight, anastonishingly uninhibited and tender gesture, the kind of letter sons dream of receiving fromtheir fathers:Hearty congratulations! Over and over again and also envy & jealousy. Oh! Ben my boy what does it feel like to hear your own creation? Didn’t you want to get up and shout – It’s mine! It’s mine! … What a break toget a crowd who would really do it as you want it. I want to cry! Thanks for letting us know so soon we were all on edge to hear. Go on my son

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