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A good but flawed biography
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.