Benjamin Britten

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.