Sunday, February 10, 2013

Benjamin Britten: the Englishman who saved music

Benjamin Britten was a child prodigy who went on to compose some of the 20th century’s greatest works. Peter Parker salutes a man whose genius was fuelled by personal passions.

Benjamin Britten: Changed British music
Benjamin Britten: Changed British music Photo: © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy
Benjamin Britten would have been very pleased to know that his centenary is being celebrated with concerts and events all around the world, from Helsinki to Kuala Lumpur, under the slogan “Britten 100: Music for Everyone”. His work may be performed in the world’s grandest opera houses and concert halls, but Britten genuinely believed that music should be available to all. His founding of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 exemplified this: some of the 20th century’s greatest musicians were persuaded to join him in concerts performed in halls and churches in the small Suffolk town he had made his home. Many of his own works and those of other composers received their premieres there. He also introduced generations of children to music through such works as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Let’s Make an Opera and preeminently Noye’s Fludde, where they get to sing and play an array of musical instruments alongside professionals. It is characteristic of Britten’s influence and reach that the director Wes Anderson, who at the age of 10 played an otter in a school production of Noye’s Fludde in his native Texas, would go on to use Britten as a “musical backbone” to his wonderful recent film about American childhood, Moonrise Kingdom.

In Britten (Haus, t £9.99) David Matthews observes that his reputation, unlike that of many composers, has suffered no decline since his death in 1976. Indeed, those who dislike the composer talk about “the Britten industry”. Even Paul Kildea, in Britten: a Life in the 20th Century (Allen Lane, t £26) refers somewhat despairingly to “the sheer scale of the documentation project in place” – notably at the Britten-Pears Foundation, which boasts “the most complete composer archive in the world”. For anyone who wants to know what the fuss is all about, Matthews’s little book, first published in 2003 and now reissued in a “centenary edition”, is a good place to start. It occasionally seems rather old fashioned (Britten’s mother “very likely” made him homosexual) and it lacks the quirkiness of John Bridcut’s entertaining but authoritative Pocket Guide to Britten (2010), which not only gives a detailed outline of the composer’s life but also a full descriptive catalogue of his works. It nevertheless provides a solid introduction to the man and his music, written by a composer who worked with him.

Neil Powell (Benjamin Britten: a Life for Music, Hutchinson, t £23) and Kildea’s books will suit readers who want rather more, but are daunted by the six meticulously annotated volumes of Britten’s selected letters, which amount to a biography but run to more than 4,500 pages. Both writers make large claims for their subject, which their respective biographies, in their very different ways, wholly justify. For Powell, Britten “was the greatest of English composers – rivalled only by Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar – and one of the most extraordinarily gifted musicians ever to have been born in this country”. Kildea concludes that Britten “produced a body of works and performances that was unrivalled in the 20th century and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon”. 

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