Review: Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea

The pre-publication furore around Paul Kildea’s new biography of Benjamin Britten ‒ published in time for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth ‒ reflects poorly on our lust for PR. Kildea was no doubt encouraged by his publishers to hype up a tendentious hypothesis that Britten’s fatal heart disease was due to the ravages of syphilis. Numerous medical figures ‒ including those present during surgery ‒ have dismissed the claims, leaving the book on dodgy ground before a single copy had been sold.

Despite his opportunistic analysis of all things medical, Kildea has a firm grasp on describing the life and works. Some of his allusions smack of pretension, yet Britten’s sound world has never been summed up in clearer terms. And for a composer who can appear all-too-fastidious, Kildea is not afraid of unmasking his subject’s foibles and inconsistencies.

Britten’s occasionally subpar music and ideas are highlighted rather than glanced over and the awkwardness of interpersonal relationships often becomes the focus of Kildea’s keen study. He is excellent at reading motivations and analysing responses ‒ not least when it comes to Britten’s collaborators.

Most persuasive is Kildea’s celebration of the ambiguity of Britten’s music and his refusal to serve up a pat morality to a hungry bourgeoisie. Having distanced himself from the gossip and conjecture of Humphrey Carpenter’s eminently readable 1992 account, Kildea maintains this convincing high ground throughout. And rather than a prospectus for the brilliance of Britten, we are gifted a balanced account, which presents the composer for the inspired, sometimes hasty, critical, often un-self-critical, loving, bitchy figure he clearly was.

It is, then, a disappointment when Kildea resorts to blunt conjecture in the final section of the book. Given the similarity of the effects of the venereal disease and those experienced by Britten in his latter years, Kildea could have achieved so much more through inference rather stating things outright.

Coming after the consummate knowledge Kildea displays elsewhere, the syphilis debate proves an unnecessary and unfortunate distraction for biographer and reader alike. But, scandal spinning stories aside, Kildea’s text proves an eloquent and erudite addition to the Britten bibliography.

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