Review: Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music

Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music
Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by Neil Powell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Powell wants us to believe that Benjamin Britten was a good man. I will happily say that he wrote a great deal of beautiful and technically excellent music, which I have enjoyed hearing and singing. Factors that complicate a full life judgment are his ambiguous relationships with young boys, and his constant co-opting and twisting of poetry and texts from the religious soul of England, and infusing them with meaning and subtext far afield from what they ought to mean. (Imagine a lightly edited performance of Britten’s Billy Budd by the Westboro Baptist Church to gain a sense of the impropriety.) Powell presents a Britten who repeatedly gives religious people what they want, both through his music and through his outward piety, but the core is hollow; he offers up homosexuality in the clothes of Christianity.

This book tilts toward hagiography, and certainly presents a sympathetic Britten throughout. Powell occasionally wanders into special pleading, assuring us on no apparent grounds whatsoever that any negative judgments of Britten’s life and work are misguided. Just trust him.

Frequently, Powell tries to edit Britten: “He surely…”, “He would have…”. It is as if he believes that wants to usher into a place of privileged access to his subject’s mind and way of thinking, but instead of demonstrating such from Britten’s writing or life, we are stuck trusting Powell. A sad biographer’s shortcut.

Auden features so largely that one gets the impression that Powell wishes he were writing the poet’s biography instead. Surely Auden had a profound impact on Britten; surely one could have written a duography if one wanted.

A negative consequence of Britten’s homosexuality (which Powell interestingly mirrors at times in his own authorial attitude) is his failure to understand or appreciate family life and its importance to those he worked with. Several relationships strained or broke because Britten’s colleagues had their priorities in life straighter that Britten was able to comprehend. Powell gives a great deal of credit to Britten’s mother for his musicality, but he manifests an annoyance with her for requiring of Britten love and care in her later years. If only she had been out of the way, Britten could have got more music done!

Powell’s own musical abilities far outstrip my own, but when he prefaces things with a statement of his own limitations at reading complicated music, it profoundly weakens any musical judgments offered later.

The closing personal reminiscences of the author are perfect for prefacing a reading at the bookstore; they sit uncomfortably in the main text of the book. The biographer has given way to the fan before the book ended, and this is for the worse.

The subject and his story are truly fascinating, but they deserve a more professional telling, because Benjamin Britten was a good musician.

I received an advance reader’s copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program.

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