Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music
By Neil Powell
Henry Holt; 508 pp. $37
Pity the poor biographer of Benjamin Britten. In the past twenty years we've had the publication of Britten's copious collected letters, edited and annotated by a team of scholars. We've had a huge trove of material distributed online by the Britten–Pears Foundation. The exemplary analysis of the music by Peter Evans has been revised. And we've had Humphrey Carpenter's 1992 biography, a thorough, enjoyable overview of the life.
Will any author be able to add to this base of knowledge? Probably not, and Neil Powell's biography offers little more than subtle shifts of emphasis. He sees Billy Budd as a cornerstone work, "arguably the supreme achievement among Britten's operas." (Given this view, he might have spent more than a single sentence on Britten's extensive revisions.) And he puts more weight on young Britten's friendship with Peter Burra than others do. Conversely, bucking current trends, Powell doesn't care much for Owen Wingrave, and he minimizes the sometimes vicious way in which Britten could terminate longstanding personal relationships. Powell doesn't ignore Carpenter; rather, he sets out his flag in opposition. Early in the book, discussing an older schoolboy's crush on Britten, Powell tells us that "Carpenter's implication is, as so often, crude and simplistic." Powell has a literary bent, rather than a musical one; he tends to digress on literary topics, and some of the digressions have digressions.
Although this is a long book, it shortchanges the reader at crucial points. The bits about Britten's pacifism feel unfulfilled. We are told about "the complicated emotional baggage which accompanied writing for Peter Pears," and that Britten's apparent callousness was really "the paralyzing consequences of his own deep sense of inadequacy." These things are likely true, but we don't comprehend them from the text. The writing briefly becomes vivid when Britten's Aldeburgh Festival suffers a disastrous fire. (The Queen makes a personal phone call of condolence; Britten's favorite concert grand piano is destroyed.) But the passage with the best sense of a time and place in history is a superbly flirty letter to Britten from his boyhood friend Wulff Scherchen. Carpenter's book, with its first-hand reminiscences, feels more like an oral history than a biography, yet it has far more color and specificity.
Yet, can any book really capture the dichotomy of a man who, on the one hand, could cut people dead out of his life, and on the other hand moved from finishing off his letters to Pears with "Love" to "I love you" to — in a heartbreaking late letter quoted by Powell — "I love you, I love you, I love you"? Possibly not.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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