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Paul Kildea – Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

The publishers of Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century claim this is the definitive biography of the controversial genius many see as the only British composer of note for the last three centuries. Of course, there is already a raft of books on the subject, whether purely about his music, or his life, or both, so it will be interesting to see how this adds to them.

What is remarkable about Britten’s work is that it began to revive English opera – that is, opera sung in English. I studied his work a little in school, and it seemed from my memories he was the only one doing it – although I’m sure this can’t be true! Perhaps the only great composer to be doing this, and it fascinated me to hear not only the beautiful sounds of what has come to be my favourite, “Peter Grimes”, but to understand the words  and the story, too.

But reading further into his life, what charms me more is the strength of his conviction in two further areas.

One is his pacifiscm. During and after the second world war, to be a pacifist was judged by many to be at best suspicious, and at worse abhorrent, a judgement on Britten that was sealed when he went to America in 1939 in the teeth of the Nazi threat to Britain. During the actual war, he in fact petitioned to return home, which he did, three years later in 1942, against advice of both friends and the authorities. He achieved full conscientious objector status through statements to the war board and a cross examination. The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction, he told them.  Twenty years later he was to complete his “War Requiem”, fired by his still fervent beliefs.

Benjamin Britten and schoolchildrenThe second point of note in Britten’s private life was his open homosexuality. In a time when this was illegal, he lived with his collaborator and lover, the tenor Peter Pears, in a partnership of over forty years. Many of his greatest works were composed with and for him. ‘It isn’t the story of one man. It’s a life of the two of us‘ Britten stated. The pair were part of a wide creative circle that included many of the leading musicians, writers and artists of their day, and their home, The Red House, was one of the hubs of British cultural life.

The author of this new work, Paul Kildea, is himself a composer and performer, who has performed many of the Britten works he writes about, and also Head of Music at the Britten/Pears founded Aldeburgh Festival between 1999 and 2002. Having also written “Selling Britten” in 2002, and edited “Britten on Music” in 2003, he clearly has a passion for the subject, and we are promised that he brings a new understanding to the reading of the composer’s music in relation to his life.

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