Privileged Outsider

The cult of Benjamin Britten lives on in Paul Kildea’s new biography, painting the composer as a perennial victim

Books Music
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.

As he chronicles Britten’s early years, Kildea seems impatient for him to discover sex and get cracking. Britten is “emotionally cloistered” and “repressed”. At 22, he visits a seedy Barcelona nightclub, and though “the visit led nowhere”, Britten “was at least now thinking of himself as a sexual being”. He was ceasing to be “a prisoner of his upbringing and social censure”. Throughout the book, Kildea treats religion and morality as enemies of the good life. At one point in middle age, Britten is cross with a friend for betraying his wife. Sighs Kildea, “It was the morality of his upbringing . . .”

This book has a few simple rules: everything conservative, or smacking of conservatism, is bad, and everything progressive, or claiming to be progressive, good. Everything British is bad, and everything continental good. Germany is especially good. Before Britten, the musical scene in the United Kingdom was a joke, filled with “bumbling amateurism”. Boult was “treacly”, Beecham a mere “playboy” and “showman”, Dame Myra a provincial drip. Biographer and subject agree on this. Wrote Britten of Elgar’s Symphony No 1, “I swear that only in Imperial England would such a work be tolerated.” I suspect this work will be loved and esteemed long after some Britten works are curiosities.

Often it seems that nothing is good enough for poor Benjy, having to live in a world so obviously beneath him. In 1941, writes Kildea, New York was “intent on souring his outlook”. “New York is the worst,” said Britten to a friend. When Britten and Peter Pears returned to London in 1942, “they found the capital drab and shabby, in fact a little sordid”. Couldn’t Londoners have cleaned up a little for this heroic duo? What else was preoccupying them at the time?

Kildea writes openly about Britten’s lifelong fixation with adolescent boys, but he also writes defensively — sometimes very defensively. He tells us that a certain 12-year-old was “old for his age”. He also refers to this boy by his last name, as though he were on the same level as the adults around him. Worse, Kildea leaves the impression that those worldly, easygoing Balinese boys, unlike their cloistered counterparts in the West, actually liked it.

Britten died in 1976, and Kildea says that syphilis was responsible. This is a news-making claim or finding. He also says that Britten was “the 20th century’s consummate musician”, producing “a body of works and performances that was unrivalled” in that century. Britten was not just better than, say, Shostakovich, but unrivalled by him? Really?

As you have gathered, I didn’t like this book very much and found some of it repulsive. I could not abide the sneering, the bitchiness, the judgmentalism. I am out of sympathy with the author and his subject: their biases, their attitudes, their views, their poses. But listen: this book is a major achievement. And Paul Kildea is a dazzling writer. Seldom will you encounter someone who writes so naturally and musically and well.

There are a million brilliant, beautiful or striking sentences in this very long book — 688 pages — but, churlish me, I will quote just about the only bad one I spotted. On page 370, Kildea writes: “He whipped through the orchestration at speed” — the only way to whip, really.

The book is researched to the nth degree, and Kildea is almost indecently learned. He stuffs this book with interesting facts, observations, and anecdotes. He also stuffs it with details — down to the price of things — yet the book does not bog down, moving forward with verve. I believe he understands Britten entirely.

Reading his book was an ordeal for me, for the reasons I’ve given. I haven’t disliked a book so strongly in ages. But it deserves to win some big prize and, if I were on the jury, I’d vote for it.