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A life for the general reader
on 23 February 2013
Warning: this review contains spoilers.
For any biographer of Benjamin Britten, there is an enormous amount of source material; much, inevitably, has to be omitted, and I think Kildea is right to employ such a selective process, otherwise this would have been a three volume biography. Such a methodology does mean that there are serious omissions. I would have liked more about the circumstances surrounding the composition and première of 'Paul Bunyan'. Brief reference is made to the composer's friendships with adolescent boys, but this is a subject that has been dealt with more fully elsewhere. We are not told enough about Peter Pears' role, good and bad, both from a personal aspect and the influence he had in developing Britten's compositions.
Elsewhere, Kildea displays a less than rigorous approach to the material he has chosen. He does not explain the origins of the commission for the ballet 'The Prince of the Pagodas' nor why, at this stage in his career (the 1950s), Britten agreed to compose a piece in a genre of which he had shown no previous demonstrable interest, or empathy. Kildea attempts to place Britten in the context of the British professional musical scene of whose standards the composer was so critical. He uses an example from fiction to describe the poverty of Britain's musical life in the 1930s: " ...the land of Mapp and Lucia, E.F.Benson's comic creations ...hosting musical soirées where the sole offering was the slow movement of Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata. Britain just didn't know any better" (p46). Kildea should have researched this issue more; using a fictional yard-stick is reductive and lazy.
Quite rightly, in a biography designed for the general reader, Kildea does not undertake in-depth analyses of Britten's music, but highlights the main points of major works. He grossly downplays the importance of 'Curlew River' as a new type of music drama, but does favourably re-assess 'Owen Wingrave' an opera which has always been, wrongly, in my opinion, undervalued by critics. He sometimes assumes previous knowledge on the part of the reader, when he should have been more explicit. For example, he discusses the ISCM (p89) but omits to explain what the letters stand for (International Society for Contemporary Music).
There is one serious misjudgement, which received coverage in the press prior to the publication of the biography, and that is Kildea's contention that Britten had tertiary syphilis. Subsequent comments by medical experts in the press have rubbished this claim.
The biography is particularly good on Britten's early life and his final days are movingly described. I liked the way Kildea provides regular updates on Britten's earnings with the equivalent current values also given.
The book has a strong narrative flow and is an enjoyable and absorbing read.