Allen Lane, £30 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

Get money off this book at the Independent's book shop

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

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot