Archive Reviews

Book Review for the Britten Centennial

Benjamin Britten. Photo: Denis de Marney/Getty Images.

Benjamin Britten. Photo: Denis de Marney/Getty Images.

Root Notes

Neil Powell’s ‘Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music’

October 25, 2013  |  The New York Times

In Tony Palmer’s film “A Time There Was . . . ,” Leonard Bernstein describes Benjamin Britten’s music as seemingly “decorative, positive and charming, and it’s so much more than that. You become aware of something very dark. He was a man at odds with the world in many ways. And he didn’t show it.”

Britten certainly wore a mask of composure, but on many levels he did reveal his uncertainty about his place in the world, writing operas that depict outsiders rejected by the community. An openly gay man when homosexual acts were illegal and a conscientious objector during World War II, Britten was also an establishment figure, commissioned to write works for state occasions and friends with royalty.

In “Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music,” Neil Powell examines the complex character and life of a man whose centennial has been celebrated this year on both sides of the Atlantic. While Paul Kildea’s recent biography provokes with a controversial theory about Britten and syphilis, Powell is not looking to uncover any prurient scandal. He writes as an unabashed fan.

Britten certainly aimed to please, a noteworthy goal during a postwar era when frigidly academic and avant-garde music alienated many listeners. Powell, a poet and biographer, is not a musicologist; instead of notated examples he offers elegant descriptions of Britten’s music and the Suffolk countryside that inspired it. (At one point, he says the end of the Violin Concerto “seems strangely drawn out, as if the expected final cadence keeps clambering onto a slippery rock, falling off and trying again until it eventually succeeds.”) Powell also writes insightfully about the relationship between the music and the texts Britten used. His observations about Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” illuminate the challenges facing Britten when writing his opera of the same name.

Powell dedicates substantial space to “Death in Venice,” “Billy Budd” and “Peter Grimes,” exploring them as a triptych of operas about troubled older men pitted against youthful innocence in “the presence of Britten’s earliest companion and continual inspiration, the sea.” Powell disagrees with many critiques of Britten’s music, but makes relevant criticisms of his own about various works, describing “The Rape of Lucretia” as “too literary and too static,” for example.

For Powell, “ ‘Billy Budd’ is indeed a masterpiece, arguably the supreme achievement among Britten’s operas. Where ‘Grimes’ suffers from a sense of irresolution and ‘Lucretia’ from its tacked-on Christian morality, here the framing prologue and epilogue provide an entirely satisfying structure.” Few would disagree, he writes, that Britten’s “Children’s Crusade,” a 1969 choral work, is unappealing.

Britten’s friendships with children have long been the object of much interest, a topic sensitively explored by John Bridcut in a 2006 book. Powell is firm that there is no need to speculate on Britten’s many relationships with adolescent boys and takes a no-nonsense attitude to debunking any hint of scandal.

This book depicts Britten as scrupulous and uptight; the composer disapproved of the bohemian lifestyles he encountered in America, a country he found to be “a great disappointment,” “so narrow . . . so chauvinistic.” Indeed, Britten, according to Powell, didn’t relax his strait-laced “English ways” until a trip to Bali, whose music traditions influenced him profoundly.

Apart from uptight, he was also neurotic, nonconfrontational, highly sensitive and wildly insecure, with incessant ailments that irked his lifelong partner and artistic muse, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten, a superb accompanist who often performed with Pears, had such severe stage fright that he frequently resorted to a pre-performance brandy to calm his nerves. Like Pears, W. H. Auden, a collaborator and friend, often failed to understand Britten’s “demons”: “depression and his terrifying lack of self-confidence.”

While Britten’s faith in human nature was frequently shattered, the composer himself was not always an example of human nature at its finest, coldly abandoning friends and colleagues who had displeased him. Powell gives plentiful examples, but sometimes defends Britten’s behavior, writing that “those who accused him of callousness entirely failed to understand the paralyzing consequences of his own deep sense of inadequacy.”

Some of Powell’s psychoanalysis into the possible roots of that feeling of inadequacy seems tenuous, like the observation that “Benjamin’s childhood geographical environment and the tensions within his family both fostered the sense of apartness which is a prerequisite of creativity.” Powell also speculates unnecessarily about why Britten was still unhappy after achieving fame and material success.

Britten’s childhood is discussed in detail. Powell notes the “ambiguous” stature of dentistry, his father’s profession, and the “obsessively pushy mother” who wanted her younger son to be ranked the fourth B — alongside Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. As Powell aptly notes, “A more relevant trinity of B’s would be Bridge, Berg and Berkeley.”

Frank Bridge was one of Britten’s most important teachers. Britten said, “He taught me to think and feel through the instruments I was writing for.” From a young age Britten was remarkably prolific: he had composed no fewer than 534 pieces by the end of 1927, the year he turned 14.

Britten befriended the composer Lennox Berkeley, and he was deeply upset by the death of Alban Berg — more so than by the death of his own father, which Powell attributes to “the English middle-class habit of emotional reticence.” Throughout, he depicts Britten as an intensely shy man who disliked being interviewed. But he had a good head for business and certainly wasn’t averse to publicizing his events. He tried, unsuccessfully, to entice Marilyn Monroe to a fund-raising party for his Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948. Some of the most important musicians of the time, including the cellist Mstislav Rostropo­vich, were guest artists; Britten and Pears frequently performed together there.

Powell includes some moving excerpts from the love letters Pears and Britten wrote to each other. Among the most significant elements of Britten’s legacy was his role as pathbreaker for the gay community. Powell says Britten and Pears “taught gay men of my generation the astonishing lesson that it was possible for a homosexual couple to live decently and unapologetically in provincial England.”

Powell admits he once had a tendency to idolize Britten as “one of the few exceptional creative artists whose greatness I thought I could take on trust.” While still undoubtedly a devoted fan, he offers a mostly objective portrait that explores the tremendous gifts, the flaws and the complex personality of one of the 20th century’s most brilliant composers.

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