Benjamin Britten (Magill Book Reviews)
Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten carefully documents the composer’s journey from a pampered childhood, through a rather miserable public school career, his struggles for musical acceptance, and his self-doubts about his personal life, to the recognition that honored his last years. Referencing diaries, letters, and extensive interviews with those who knew him, Carpenter scrupulously tries to gain a consensus from his sources about Britten’s personal life, particularly his ambivalence about his homosexuality.
Carpenter makes the case that Britten’s great operas, PETER GRIMES, BILLY BUDD, THE TURN OF THE SCREW, and DEATH IN VENICE, all address the issues most pressing in the composer’s life: the plight of the social outcast and his lifelong preoccupation with the theme of endangered innocence. The source of these thematic interests were his own possible sexual victimization as a child and his sense of alienation because of his homosexuality, conscientious objector status during World War II, leftist politics, and status as misunderstood modern composer.
Despite these obstacles, Britten managed to find a secure and lasting relationship with tenor Peter Pears, his companion of thirty-seven years, for whom much of his music was written. In his middle and later years, he also gained public recognition through the annual Alderburgh arts festival and his commission to write GLORIANA, an opera celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.
Carpenter’s biography contains so much information of such varying degrees of importance that the reader might well miss the forest for the trees. One would like less minutiae and broader assessment of Britten’s musical contribution and greatness; nevertheless, the book provides a wealth of information and a fascinating life story.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXXV, October 10, 1992, p.112.
Library Journal. CXVIII, June 15, 1993, p.70.
London Review of Books. XV, February 11, 1993, p.3.
The Manchester Guardian Weekly. CXLVII, October 11, 1992, p.29.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, July 11, 1993, p.9.
The New Yorker. LXIX, July 5, 1993, p.86.
The Observer. September 27, 1992, p.51.
Opera News. LVIII, October, 1993, p.56.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, May 10, 1993, p.64.
The Spectator. CCLXIX, October 3, 1992, p.28.
The Times Literary Supplement. November 13, 1992, p.5.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, June 20, 1993, p.8.
Benjamin Britten (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
His mother was determined to make him the fourth B, the twentieth century representative in the pantheon of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Indeed, his very birthday fell on the feast day of the patron saint of music and seemed to confirm Edward Benjamin Britten’s destiny. Born in Lowestoft in East Anglia on November 22, 1913, Beni, as his family called him, was shaped for musical greatness.
Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten carefully documents the composer’s journey from a pampered childhood, through a rather miserable public school career; struggles for musical acceptance, and self-doubts about his personal life, to the recognition that honored his last years. Referencing diaries, letters, and extensive interviews with those who knew him, Carpenter scrupulously tries to gain a consensus from his sources about Britten’s personal life.
Two of the pervasive issues in this book are the composer’s preoccupation with his sexual orientation and his keen interest in the theme of innocence endangered. After the nurturing environment of his family home, Britten found the English public school environment inhospitable. His diary and letters reflect his revulsion at disciplinary beatings and bullying. Eric Crozier; librettist and producer of several early Britten operas, maintains that the composer told him that he had been raped by a schoolmaster. This event perhaps was the source of his later protectiveness toward young boys and his proclivity for operatic texts on the theme of the vulnerability of innocence.
Britten began to compose at the piano as early as age five or six, producing pieces that, as he put it with some irony, were “inspired by terrific events in my home life.” “Do You No That My Daddy Has Gone to London Today,” dated 1919, for piano and vocal duet, is one of those surviving pieces. At ten, he was encouraged by his piano teacher to attend concerts in Norwich. Particularly impressed by Frank Bridge’s The Sea, he was studying with Bridge by age fourteen.
At sixteen, he won a scholarship to London’s Royal College of Music based on
some of his compositions. Carpenter describes the British music scene at this time as divided between Edward Elgar and the Brahms imitators and the English pastoralists, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Hoist, and John Ireland. Impatient with these composers, Britten seems to have charted another course. His diary records favorable impressions of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitry Shostakovich. On the strength of his Sinfonietta and two works entitled Phantasy, Britten, by age nineteen, was being classified with William Walton as one of the rising stars in England’s music firmament.
Britten’s was an uphill struggle, however, for contemporary music was not well received. Epitomizing this state of affairs was the 1936 performance of his satiric, experimental Our Hunting Fathers. In a rehearsal he conducted, which he referred to as “the most catastrophic evening of my life,” members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra mocked the work and its twenty-three-year-old composer.
To earn a living in this early period of his career, Britten turned to writing soundtracks for General Post Office documentary films. His first assignment was “to concoct some rubbish about a Jubilee Stamp.” Yet the job had the fortunate effect of introducing him to W. H. Auden, who wrote text for the films. Seven years his senior, bohemian, leftist, and openly homosexual, Auden had an important influence on the young composer. Britten said that Auden was “in” all of his operas, although they actually collaborated on only one, Paul Bunyan (1941). In turn, Auden regarded Britten as possessing an extraordinary sensitivity to the English language and ability to ally music with it.
Aside from their professional relationship, Auden influenced Britten’s personal life. In 1936, he wrote, with characteristic boldness, poems offering his impression of the composer as cold and numb and urged him to give himself up to passion. Christopher Isherwood confirms that he and Auden probably took it upon themselves “to bring [Britten] out.”
The deaths of his father in 1934 and mother in 1937 seem to have freed Britten to make a decision about his sexuality. Only a month after his mother’s death, a diary entry describes a luncheon with a homosexual schoolmate who urged him “to decide something about my sexual life. 0, for a little courage.” Carpenter notes that in June of 1938, after eleven years of faithful recordings,...
(The entire section is 1905 words.)