This is the sort of reference book you buy to dip into and end up reading from cover to cover. A quirky, idiosyncratic miscellany of fact, quotation and commentary, it is written with a deceptive lightness of touch, being firmly anchored, you soon realize, in a deep and focused knowledge and appreciation of its subject. This is a brilliant short guide, full of telling detail, to the life and work of the outstanding British composer of the mid twentieth century, and more than earns its place alongside earlier works of comparable scope, such as Michael Kennedy's Britten (1981) in Dent's Master Musicians series.
The book is divided into five parts, covering perceptions, past and present, of Britten's status as a composer; his life in outline; his artistry as a performer, principally as conductor and pianist; his influences; and taking up about half of the book, his music, which is categorised according to type, beginning with the orchestral works, reaching a climax with the operas and other stage works, and ending (like a Britten and Pears recital) with the folk-song arrangements. Pleasingly, the author permits himself to grade individual works, top-ranking compositions being accorded five stars, and he employs a special symbol to flag up what he considers to be key works in Britten's oeuvre: you may not always agree with John Bridcut's judgements, but you are bound to respect them and to be stimulated by them.
Seamus Heaney has said of the poet Norman MacCaig that 'he is poetry to me'. To many in the 1950s and 60s who followed the developing career of Benjamin Britten, then at the height of his powers, his music came to provide a similar kind of touchstone. Not the least of the achievements of John Bridcut's delightful book is to recover something of the excitement of those times, catching Britten on the wing, so to speak, when questions of the value the future would place upon his work seemed irrelevant beside the phenomenon of his extraordinary musicality.