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This review is from: Letters from a Life Vol 2: 1939-45: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten: 1939-45 v. 2 (Paperback)
There are not words enough to praise this second volume of Britten's letters. I have just spent the past few weeks totally absorbed in this outstanding volume. Scholarly it certainly is, and thoroughly informative about the composer's early professional years - but also marvellously entertaining!
In the company of Britten's own words, we journey through the gestation of some of his major early works. But what we get is much more than an insight into his music. This is a rivetting historical document which illuminates the lives of ordinary individuals during World War II. Britten spent the first half of the war in the US. The letters he receives from home clearly suggest the grim reality of life in WW2 Britain whilst Britten's own letters give an erudite insight into how the war was viewed from the other side of the Atlantic prior to America's entry.
This sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, e.g. the contrast between the hardships of life in war torn Britain and details of Britten's lovely vacations in California and New England. Not that he didn't suffer extreme stress and anguish as he viewed the situation from afar. And his letters from the States evidence an astonishing work ethic. Yet, his pacifist views often startle. How chilling to read the report of his tribunal for conscientious objectors in which he remarked 'I believe in letting an invader in and setting him a good example' (no. 375, note 1). As a gay man under Nazi occupation I doubt he would have been allowed the opportunity to set such as an example!
Whether one agrees with his views or not is immaterial. These letters paint a multifaceted portrait of an extraordinary artist during extraordinary times. The letters between Britten and Pears are perhaps the most vivid. The intensity of their love for one another is obvious. Their sentiments are often tender and passionate and are of such a personal nature that it feels intrusive to read them. These are a testament to the boldness with which they swam against the currents of a society shot through with homophobia. Gay pioneers indeed, for which they deserve the utmost admiration and respect.
The annotations are as fascinating as the letters themselves - readable and insightful but never dull. This is a fantastic read and I cannot wait to move on to volume 3.
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