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I'm Backing Britten - and Carpenter,
This review is from: Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Paperback)
I can't help feeling that Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten will outlive most of the others. There is of course a thriving Britten Industry at the moment: Britten was born 100 years ago this year, and so lots of people are cashing in on the fact. A wealth of biographies, large and small, has been produced - with a wealth of detail (some of it purely speculative) about the man's life and loves and hates and passions - and of course because plenty of research has been possible, together with a healthy 35-year gap since the subject's death, Britten the man and Britten the composer have been gone over with a fine tooth-comb, leaving not so much as a crotchet or quaver unturned.
For my money, Humphrey Carpenter wins. Writing in the 1990s - fifteen years after the composer's death - he has produced a compelling and readable account of a musical genius who was also a charming, lovable, annoying, neurotic, and sometimes downright unpleasant man. The book is rich in quotation, anecdote, episode and interview - it's always literate, always compassionate, and carefully avoids the pitfall of hero-worship that has marred some versions of the BB legend.
Here we have a superbly rounded portrait, and one that the reader will be the richer and more knowledgeable for. Issues are not fudged: there is, fortunately, no attempt to conceal or whitewash Britten's sexual preferences - and nor is there any attempt to silence the occasional detractors who fell foul of Ben's surprising and often unexpected ruthlessness.
Heroes of the British arts float in and out of the pages, names that are as familiar today as Britten's own: John Piper, William Walton, John Betjeman, Kathleen Ferrier, W.H. Auden - the list goes on. Opera, film, television, all take their place alongside the wealth of music, large and small scale, that Britten produced in his relatively short life (he was 63 when he died.)
For music lovers, Britten's major works are dissected with scrupulous care. The many librettos and texts are also taken apart and analysed, even when there can be no real need or justification for doing so, and I can't help feeling that the results would sometimes have raised a smile on their creators' faces. But that's all part of the mystique that surrounds composers, who are after all in a class and world of their own, and as we must all acknowledge, Britten is definitely unique among modern music-makers.
This book is a superb read. For anyone and everyone. You do not have to be a musical genius to appreciate it, or to appreciate the genius of a man who was arguably one of the world's very greatest composers. That Benjamin Britten did so much to keep British arts and music alive at a time when the odds seemed almost overwhelmingly stacked against them is undeniable, and Humphrey Carpenter's biography is a fitting and masterful tribute to an extraordinary man.
By all means delve deeper into the life and times of B.B., and explore any of the more recent volumes about him, but 'Benjamin Britten: a Biography' is the perfect place to start the journey.