BOOK REVIEW / A composer in search of the songs of innocence: 'Benjamin Britten: A Biography' - Humphrey Carpenter: Faber, 20 pounds

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THE indefinite article is an unnecessary modesty: this isn't a biography so much as the biography, the one the music world has waited for with bated breath since Britten died 16 years ago, expecting it to come from Donald Mitchell - the composer's friend, executor and designated chronicler - and surprised to find it handed on to Humphrey Carpenter, who is neither a musician nor part of the Aldeburgh establishment.

Reading the book, though, you can appreciate why it had to be done by an outsider, if only because the details of Britten's personal life rattle skeletons that anybody who was close to him would find painful to expose. Carpenter's exposure is quite thorough, which may be why the Britten trustees who originally facilitated his research are now denying its 'official' status. And the issue, of course, is sex. We knew from the letters and diaries that Britten was gay, that he loved Peter Pears but also liked young boys, that he was pathologically insecure, and could be cruel to friends and colleagues. But the diaries stop at an early age, and there are things that public figures don't commit to correspondence. We didn't know just how important the boys were in Britten's life, or how far he took his relationships with them; and we certainly didn't know about two sensational claims Britten apparently made in private to friends - that he had been raped as a child by one of his teachers, and (unbelievably) that his father, the Lowestoft town dentist, sent him out to procure other boys for sex.

You may ask: Do we really need to know these things? To which the answer would have to be: Yes. Of course, it is the music that counts; of course, Britten's reputation depends on his scores, not his psyche. But it's because the music has such stature that we want to know it better, and Britten was not a composer who divorced his life from his art. It doesn't take profound psychology to read his total output, especially the text-based items, as an apologia pro vita sua, churning over constant and obssessive issues on the themes of adults struggling for the minds, bodies or souls of children, of frustrated desire, and of innocence defiled. If the story about childhood rape is true, it could be what Britten's Rimbaud settings, Les Illuminations, call the 'clef de cette parade'.

Scrupulously, Carpenter presents the evidence but doesn't press the point, and it's a virtue of the book - one of the most fascinating musical biographies I've ever read, a paradigm of serious scholarship and good narrative style - that potentially sensational material is handled with care as well as candour. There are individual misreadings of the operas, and times when Carpenter could have given more space to the factual history of the works and less to conjectural analysis: I can't really believe that the cliff-top fall of the apprentice in Peter Grimes is symbolic of a fall from grace (and by implication, into sexual experience) merely because his scream descends from a high C, the key of purity in Britten's tonal schemes. But I'm sure there is something to be said for Carpenter's approach to the operas via W H Auden - a dominating influence that caught hold of Britten at an impressionably youthful age and stretched on throughout his life.

Auden, always the nanny, set himself up as Britten's psycho-sexual career counsellor. A number of his Thirties and Forties poems were coded exhortations to the young composer not to let his feelings be defeated by conventional morality. And there was a letter of January 1942 which attacked Britten's 'evasion of the demands of disorder'. Great art, the letter says, comes from 'a perfect balance between Order and Chaos', the Bohemian and bourgeois, and Britten's tendency towards the bourgeois, towards 'building yourself a warm nest of love', is self-crippling: 'If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer and make others suffer . . . you will have to be able to say . . . god, I'm a shit.'

It seems that Britten took this advice to heart; and Carpenter argues, persuasively, that the recurring pattern in the operas of antagonistic pairs of characters fighting for possession of a third - Vere and Claggart in Billy Budd, Quint and the Governess in Turn of the Screw, Apollo and Dionysus in Death in Venice - are the bourgeois/

Bohemian dilemma incarnate, with Britten himself strung in the middle.

Ultimately, though, Britten was a bourgeois - sexually reticent and struggling to keep his feelings within some kind of boundary. Although he slept with his boys, he seems to have done nothing more than kiss and cuddle them; and none of the ones (now grown up) interviewed by Carpenter remembers Britten with anything but admiration and affection. There is no doubt that he did, in the best sense of the word, love children. He badly wanted to be someone's father, and Carpenter cites a couple of bizarre attempts at quasi- adoption, neither of which endured.

What did endure was Peter Pears, who emerges from the book as not quite the constant companion we had all imagined but none the less the one that survived. Their relationship was as conventional as gay matrimony could be in the days when such things were punishable by imprisonment. But to the extent that Britten absorbed Auden's counsel against warm nests, he may well have retained a secret need to slap Pears down occasionally. One of Carpenter's most interesting theories is that the sequence of operatic roles written for Pears, which have always seemed like love-gifts, actually harbour a kind of chastisement. Time and again they force the tenor to the brink of sexual self- exposure in terms which are potentially humiliating (the transvestite Madwoman in Curlew River, which resulted in cruelly funny jokes that Robert Tear still tells) or downright destructive (Aschenbach with rouged cheeks, stripped of dignity and everything but impotent desire).

Pears must have had mixed feelings about these roles, and that he took them on with such extraordinary conviction is testimony to his genius. That Britten wrote them in the first place is testimony to his - whatever the motivation. And if this book does nothing else, it demonstrates the complex possibilities of meaning they sustain. No wonder Joan Cross, principal soprano in the premiere of Peter Grimes, admitted at the time that she was not sure what the opera was about.

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