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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2013
Having read a number of books about Britten's life and music, I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this. But having heard Paul Kildea at an author's talk at Daunt Books in London, I quickly realised this would have particular authority. Kildea is a musician and a PhD musicologist (2 things which don't always go hand-in-hand). Not only that, he has had experience of performance and running festivals. In particular, he was for many years head of Music for the Aldeburgh Festival (which means you can't get much closer to this source than that, in this generation at least).

This is not hagiography (unlike some books about Britten) - and is the better for it. There is nuance amidst the genuine and profound respect for the composer. Ben was notoriously prickly and prone to feuds - his inner circle sometimes shifting, often protecting him to enable him to compose (but in-so-doing, acquiescing to his occasionally appalling cruelty). And yet, despite this, here was a man with extraordinary humanity and conviction, which profoundly shaped his musical output. The pieces are described and engaged with from a performer's perspective as well as a musicologist. And as one who has had a little experience playing and singing Britten, these descriptions really resonated with me. Most significantly, reading this book has impelled me to dust off old recordings that I've not listened to for ages, now with greater insight and understanding.

As to the book's subtitle (A Life in the Twentieth Century), it is a curious choice. After all, it does seem rather redundant. However, Britten lived through various aspects of the century's extremes (albeit as a conscientious objector in the 2WW, and as a performer with close friends like Rostropovich in the USSR) and tried to come to terms with them in his unique, pacifist way. His was a life of great pathos - the ups and downs of his unpredictable but committed relationship with Pears, his regular illness (and Kildea has one or two surprises on that front towards the end of the book), and his love-hate relationships with the British Establishment. All of this reveals much about life in the UK and beyond during this turbulent period. Furthermore, to drive the point home, Kildea works hard to give a sense of context to each stage - with occasional but always relevant excursuses on contemporary affairs, debates or events - and these are unfailingly interesting.

The descriptions of the last years and months are deeply affecting, as he struggled with completing (the personally resonant?) Death in Venice while his body failed. There were a few reconciliations with old slighted friends, but it was too little too late. He died as a tower of 20th C music (not just British music) - and his compositional legacy was immense.

This is a book that I was gripped by, and which did great justice to one of the greats. It is going to be THE definitive biography of Britten - but I'd go so far as to say that it is also a model for all musical biography.

A good companion to this would be Britten in Pictures.
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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.
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on 16 April 2013
Two stumbling blocks seem to stand before biographers: venereal diseases and blaming of the partner. Kildea avoided none of them. In respect to the former, he made Britten rejoin the glorious company of Schubert, Wolf, a.o. In respect to the latter, he made Pears rejoin the no less famous company of the biographers' "bêtes noires" - Konstanze Mozart and Sophie von Kühn (Novalis's fiancée) come to mind. Kildea needed Pears's "bad behaviour" (based on a hearsay theory of one person who disliked him) to support his speculation about the venereal disease and further "bad influence" on Britten.
Now Britten's supposed disease has been rebutted by several of his doctors (Kildea's misfortune is that they are still alive) and the misrepresentation of Pears is contradicted by first hand sources like the six volumes of "Letters from a Life" and witnesses of people who knew him well (his and Britten's biographer Christopher Headington among others).

The main point about these errors and inaccuracies is that they cast doubt on Kildea's research or seriousness and therefore I can't really trust him as a biographer. Too bad, because the book is corrective of some of Carpenter's major flaws but it contains also, in addition to the main speculations, some misleading half-truths (e.g. some half-told stories which when complete - as they can be found in other books - share a different light on the narrated events).
Kildea's avowal of disliking Britten as a person gives him some apparent credit, but this too is a fashion among biographers: lest one be accused of hagiography, better say the music is good and the man not so good. So few is said for example about Britten's kindness (called "hatred of confrontation") for which there exists nevertheless touching evidence (Fischer-Dieskau for example, in "Echoes of a Lifetime", and others).

For me the best part of the book was the description of the cultural background in Britten's time.
On Britten himself and his music, I appreciated some insights (e.g. the profile of Britten's ideal musician, the international quality of Britten's music, the notion of "innocence betrayed rather than destroyed") but couldn't adhere to some others (his supposed narrow understanding of women for example).
I was disappointed by the commentaries on the early operas (endless discussions of librettos, e.g.: Lucretia: three pages about the libretto, no word about the music; Albert Herring: four pages about the libretto, two lines about the music! - quite curiously, because in other places Kildea himself finds criticism of librettos pointless) but I appreciated some other musical analyses (of Canticle V, The Prince of the Pagodas and the 3rd quartet to quote only a few). These could have made some good essays, but as a biography the book was for me rather disappointing, especially the second half of it.

Please excuse my English.
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on 21 April 2013
Paul Kildea may well regret the furore which surrounded the publication of this book early in 2013, because it has largely obscured objective criticism of his splendid biography. Setting aside the issue of syphilis and Britten's heart condition - readers can make up their minds about this for themselves - I believe this to be the most balanced and enlightening examination of the composer's life and creative process now available. Kildea's background as a conductor and his tremendous literary style make this a most compelling read. It offers a brilliant overview of the cutural and social context in which Britten composed, with many revealing insights into the motivations and influence of other leading musicians, writers, dancers, singers, poets and artists. Moreover it succeeds in whetting the reader's appetite for the music itself, not just the great works, but also the many smaller but often brilliant pieces which have already fallen into obscurity. It is a weighty tome, so I recommend purchase in the Kindle edition.
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on 15 March 2013
This is the biography for the music lover, not the scholar, and the author's sympathetic discussion of the works will have the reader reaching for his or her CD collection (or Ipod!). The author discusses Britten's character but does not dwell on his sexuality or liaisons so the prurient or paedophile hunter must look elsewhere for evidence.

It is marvellously written and the introduction itself is worth the asking price.
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on 16 February 2016
Three and a half to four stars would be a more accurate reflection of my feelings towards this biography by Paul Kildea. In many ways it is a more than worthy addition to the growing list of biographies about the composer, being both well-written and well-researched with many passages of insightful analysis of various aspects of Britten's musicianship. However, I do take issue with several of Kildea's central arguments as well as questioning his motives about certain issues.

First and foremost is Kildea's attempt to claim Britten as a radical and modernist international composer, rather than a specifically English one (or even more specifically a native of the Suffolk coast) and indeed, a central figure in all of twentieth century artistic endeavour. This is perhaps understandable coming from a non-British author but is, in my opinion, mistaken. Britten's Englishness is an unmistakeable ingredient of his music, albeit of an altogether different strain from the pastoral/folk tune-influenced one so prevalent in the works of previous generations of English composers. That his music has steadily gained an appreciative international audience is testament more to the undoubted quality of the music rather than any intrinsic cosmopolitanism.

As for his radical credentials, either in his music or in his politics, these are superficial. Musically, he only seems so when compared with other English composers of his and the preceding generation (Tippett, his senior by some years, was certainly more so). Politically, Britten's convictions seem on closer examination, paper thin, not to say opportunist.

Kildea has been praised in some quarters for his survey of the English music scene leading up to Britten's arrival as a composer in the thirties, decrying, as Britten did on many occasions, shoddy and amateur standards of musicianship among both orchestral players and celebrated conductors of the day, namely Boult, Beecham, Wood and Sargent. There is certainly something to this, but I'm afraid I don't buy the notion, heavily implied, that Britten rode to the rescue, saving the British musical scene from itself. No doubt he had an important part to play, but at least as important, if not more, was the influx of highly talented emigre musicians from the continent fleeing the Nazis, which immeasurably improved orchestral standards throughout the thirties, forties and into the post-war period. This aspect is barely acknowledged.

All of which leads me to what might seem a relatively minor point, and yet it is one which I think demonstrates why I have misgivings about giving this biography a higher rating. Kildea asserts a level of homophobia in British society during the post-war period which was in some way a hindrance to Britten's career and opportunities. That there were snide and cruel comments from people inside and outside the musical establishment is not disputed, but that this homophobia (some of it, as in Walton's case, almost certainly in jest) hindered him in any way is frankly laughable. He was made a Companion of Honour in 1953 and had the Queen Mother as the patron of his music festival for goodness sake!

Kildea seems to single out Walton in particular as some kind of ringleader of a group of disgruntled and homophobic musical colleagues, which is a gross distortion of the truth of their relationship. Any positive aspects of their relationship are either downplayed or completely ignored: Walton speaking on his behalf at the tribunal judging his pacifist credentials on his return from America, which Britten never forgot; the considerable impact Walton's Viola Concerto had on Britten at a crucial point in his musical development, something which Britten acknowledged on more than one occasion; and the genuine warmth and respect evident in letters from both Walton and Britten to each other right up to Britten's early death. Many other examples of Walton's respect for Britten and his music, along with his occasional indiscretions ('Alderbugger' etc) can be found in Michael Kennedy's excellent biography of Walton, 'A Portrait of Walton'.

I raise these points because, in seemingly pursuing an agenda of some kind, the author lost my trust in his judgement and I started to doubt other areas of the book about which I'm less well-informed. A great shame.
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on 6 April 2013
I have just finished this outstanding biography. It was a slow read (it took me 3 weeks) as it is packed with detail, but is never less than accessible. It is beautifully written - Kildea has an elegant and engaging style.

However, what makes this stand out from many previous books on Britten is that Kildea is astoundingly perceptive and thoroughly analytical. He admires Britten the composer but is rightly critical of Britten the man whenever appropriate. He is never over-reverential - this is a figure who was frequently unpleasant and viciously vindictive. Kildea does not attempt to make feeble excuses for the unnatractive traits in the composer's personality - a failing of some previous biographers.

Indeed, Kildea's personal voice comes across strongly and is always intelligent, engaging and balanced. Some readers may disapprove of this. However, with so many Britten biographies available, I believe this approach was entirely valid and well judged. It is obvious that Kildea is a musician - although there is no place in a biography of this length for detailed musical analyses, it is always evident that this writer has a deep understanding of the composer's output. His remarks on the music are always illuminating.

Kildea paints a much more complete picture than some of his predecessors. He frequently pauses the narrative to focus on specific topics or aspects of the composer's life which enrich and flesh out the portrait of this complex artist. For example, he takes time to analyse the weaknesses of the original productions of Britten's operas or dwells on the composer's skills as a conductor and his (Britten's) often spiteful attitudes to other conductors throughout his life.

What comes across most strongly is Britten's astounding work ethic. His early death at 63 has deprived us of the huge body of works he would have produced in the 1980s and 1990s, had he survived and his health permitted.

This is possibly the finest biography of a composer I have read. Kildea should be congratulated on his towering achievement.
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on 24 February 2013
An excellent, insightful and sympathetic portrait of Britten, free from much of the sensationalism of previous biographies. Completely and utterly fascinating.
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VINE VOICEon 19 April 2015
The 'but' is that Britten seems to have held all human relationships but one to be expendable. His achievements were amazing, and not only in the sheer number and variety of his compositions. He was also a 'great maker of things to happen', meaning the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival. I am not sure that I would wish to have known him personally, and certain that I could not have retained his friendship. Fortunately, the music stands for, and speaks for itself. Paul Kildea has done a great job but is perhaps a bit too partisan on behalf of his subject. I will approach the music afresh.
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on 1 June 2014
I love classical music and have very wide tastes, but Benjamin Britten has been a blind spot. I've struggled to get into his music. Buying this biography was a kind of commitment to see if I could find a way in. I wasn't disappointed. This reads like a very fair (and lengthy) account of a difficult person, hugely talented, but not easily likeable. I didn't find myself warming all that much to Britten, but it did help me to understand his music and where it came from. The book is very well written and alhough long is never boring. I'm trying again to find a way of enjoying Britten's music. So if like me, you want to know more about Benjamin Britten, maybe as a way into his music too, I thoroughly recommend this biography.
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