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Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, By Paul Kildea

No other book has harmonised man and music better than this life of a quiet revolutionary

Benjamin Britten is the greatest British composer of the 20th century. Yet there is no snug fit between him and any obvious form of national identity. "I am absolutely incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes," he admitted. He also slammed Elgar's first symphony: "I swear that only in Imperialist England would such a work be tolerated." When he wrote a War Requiem, combining poems by Wilfred Owen with a traditional mass to express the anguish of war, the work ends with the words "Let us sleep now". But the sweeping line of this soothing phrase is interrupted. It starts up again, only to dissolve and fade away. The possibility of resolution is denied. Britten received the Order of Merit, of which only 24 recipients exist at any one time, but was never a mouthpiece for the British establishment.

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Much has been published on Britten: six volumes of his letters, five biographical studies, including Humphrey Carpenter's popular account, and a mass of erudite scholarship. But if you have ever been touched by the magic of Britten's music, and want to perceive its alchemy, then don't miss this book. Paul Kildea, writer and conductor, introduces briskness, gravitas and wide knowledge to his study of the man, his music and its context. In this critical biography, Britten's inconsistencies are confronted, received opinions overturned, and complexity is explored. His musical development is very much to the fore, neatly tracked and authoritatively assessed.

Britten was born on the feast day of St Cecilia in 1913. This patron saint of music overrode the difficulties that troubled Britten's friendship with WH Auden: musician and poet collaborated on "Hymn to St Cecilia", a small choral gem. But a still greater blessing arose, not from the time of his birth, but its place, Lowestoft. Britten spent his childhood in a house that overlooked the North Sea.

The herring fishing industry had not yet begun its decline. During the herring season, the drifters arrived and were followed by Scottish fisher-girls who gutted, cleaned and packed the fish. Here was material which later emerged in the form of grand opera, in Peter Grimes, while its famous "Sea Interludes" convey Britten's deep familiarity with the sea, in all its moods and lights.

The dominating presence in his early life was his mother. Edith Britten was an amateur musician and active in Lowestoft's Musical Society. She famously pronounced that "Benjie" would become the fourth "B" – joining Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Kildea, following a comment made by the composer's sister Beth, sees more game-playing in this than vaulting ambition. He also has very little truck with clumsy explanations of Britten's homosexuality; with those who argue that the mother's coddling of her son was to the detriment of his latent masculinity. Instead, Edith Britten took her son seriously, he argues, and allowed him to think of himself as a composer.

This still leaves the issue of Britten and boys. Examined at length by Carpenter and sensitively dealt with by John Bridcut in Britten's Children, Kildea is justified in travelling lightly over such well-trodden ground. He argues that Britten's early pursuit of friendships with schoolboys may initially reflect his inability to open himself to the potential and dangers of an adult sexual relationship. From the evidence available, his conclusion seems apt – that the line Britten trod in later life was clear, "propriety mostly trumping sexual desire".

Kildea excels all Britten's previous commentators in his grasp of performance history. Musical standards were low when Britten's career began. Henry Wood slogged away at the Proms, night and after night, delivering a broad notion of the piece rather that an interpretation, meticulously calibrated, as it would be today, against hundreds of other performances. Britten complained of the bumbling amateurism in English music-making, and though his own performances, both as a pianist and conductor, helped bring about a sea change.

The colours he could draw out through his piano playing astonished his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. And there are some heart-stopping accounts in this book of Britten accompanying the cellist Rostropovich or playing four-handed duets with Richter.

But the real drama is Britten's unremitting creativity. It is no surprise that he had a great love of Charles Dickens. His own sense of the dramatic pushed him in the direction of opera. He served his apprenticeship under John Grierson in the GPO Film Unit, working with Auden on Night Mail. But his first major breakthrough, in the eyes of the public, was Peter Grimes (1945). It rehabilitated his reputation, removing the opprobrium he had attracted by disappearing to America soon after the start of the Second World War.

Now, with renewed confidence, he began work on The Rape of Lucretia, founded the English Opera Group, and before long the Aldeburgh Festival. Through Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Gloriana, The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, he looked back to Purcell in order to renew opera in his native language.

Of critical importance to all these operas was Britten's emphasis on collaboration, especially between librettist and composer. Economy of words was essential. Aschenbach's opening words in Death in Venice, which sum up a lengthy, wandering interior monologue, are: "My minds beats on, my mind beats on, and no words come." Kildea argues: "Never before had Britten packed so much narrative weight into the opening line of an opera." But the words, as her notebooks reveal, are those of the librettist Myfanwy Piper. There are other places, too, where her contribution – to The Turn of the Screw, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice - is understated.

Kildea's insights into the difficulties in the relationship between Britten and Pears are convincing. So too is his account of the cause of Britten's botched heart operation toward the end of his life, even though the revelation of tertiary syphilis in his aorta has been publicly challenged. More questionable, perhaps, is the over-heavy emphasis on Britten's bad behaviour in later life. Having poured so much of himself into the making of music, into high standards, and the yearly complications surrounding the Aldeburgh Festival, is it surprising that the behaviour of others sometimes caused Britten to burst with unalloyed rudeness and fierce irritation? Time was, after all, running out.

Frances Spalding's 'John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art' is published by Oxford

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