Among the country's most celebrated men: Lord Britten OM, CH (left) with his partner Sir Peter Pears CBE at Snape in 1975
Paul Kildea is an Australian conductor, scholar and music administrator. He has held leading positions at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Wigmore Hall. He has now written a big biography of Aldeburgh's founding father, Benjamin Britten. This year marks the centenary of the composer's birth. In the decade before this one, Kildea produced what you might call warm-up books: Selling Britten, which he wrote, and Britten on Music, which he edited.
He begins his biography with a discussion of Britten as outsider and dissenter. The composer was a pacifist, a homosexual, a leftist. I have felt for years that we are asked to feel sorry for him — to consider him a victim, to a degree. I have always found this hard. Britten was one of the most celebrated men in the country, bearing the initials OM and CH. At the end, he was made a peer, the first musician ever to achieve that distinction. The Queen and her husband came to his house for lunch. The outsider was pretty well treated by the inside. And if he was a victim, may we all experience such victimhood.
For as long as I can remember, I have heard Britten praised for refusing to fight in the war. He wouldn't even tinkle a few minuets for the boys, considering this an affront to his ideals. His country granted him a total exemption — something granted to a tiny few. In a statement to the relevant tribunal, he had what Kildea calls a "nice line": "The whole of my life has been devoted to acts of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction." Plenty of others, no doubt, would have preferred to create, rather than to kill or be killed. But someone had to defeat the Nazis. Someone had to make it possible for Benjamin Britten to lead his glorious, free and unconventional life.
The composer never seems to have expressed any gratitude. Winston Churchill made him sick: "that impossible old gas-bag," who was "just like a Baptist minister!" Kildea seems to share his contempt, referring to Churchill as a "well-fed Tory". Britten was lucky that the well-fed Tory gasbag existed, and so are we all.