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Book of the Week: Benjamin Britten - A Biography


This week I have been reading a biography of the British composer Benjamin Britten, whose music finally clicked for me a few years ago after I saw the Met Opera's production of "Peter Grimes".

For British people of a certain age, it's difficult to think of Britten without interference from Dudley Moore's wicked parody, where he plays a Britten-style arrangement of 'Little Miss Moffet' and sings it like Peter Pears. Pears was Britten's lover for many decades, and a singer who performed in the premieres of many of Britten's works. Carpenter's biography is very good on the dynamics of their relationship, its ups and downs, and ins and outs, as it were. The portrait he paints of Britten is of a musical genius who could be pretty ruthless, collaborating with librettists, organisers of the Aldeburgh festival, and other musicians for years, and then suddenly dropping them or firing them with no second thoughts. But it's clear that Carpenter likes Britten, despite his faults, as did many of the people whom Britten treated badly.

There's a lot of detail about British musical life in the post-war era, sometimes too much of it. Two things are particularly striking. One is that Britten and Pears lived together, shared music, a house, and a bed together, and made absolutely no attempt to hide their homosexuality, despite the fact that until the late 1960s, consenting male adults could be sent to prison for long stretches for this 'crime'. Perhaps they were insulated by Britten's fame, protected by it, but nevertheless I think they were courageous. At all times, Carpenter strikes the right balance between our prurient interest in these details of Britten's life, and the thing that ultimately matters most: his wonderful music.



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