Biographer sheds new light on Benjamin Britten

Paul Kildea author of a new biography on the life and work of Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten

Paul Kildea author of a new biography on the life and work of Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten - Credit: Archant

As the celebrations to mark the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth continue, ANDREW CLARKE talks to the author of a new biography ahead of its Norfolk launch at the composer's old school in Holt.

As the first fanfares for the Britten 100 celebrations are sounding, conductor Paul Kildea is taking the opportunity to unveil his new landmark biography of Suffolk's most famous son.

The book, entitled Benjamin Britten: A Life In The Twentieth Century, has been a labour of love for the musician who first started researching the life and works of the composer 15 years ago as part of his doctorate.

Paul knows Britten and Suffolk very well having been head of music at the Aldeburgh Festival between 1999 and 2002. He also knows the thrill of conducting an orchestra in the acoustically beautiful surroundings of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

Speaking to him on the eve of the publication of his book, I was interested to discover why he thought, even in the centenary year, there was room for another book on Britten. Certainly there has been no shortage of biographies and musical studies over the years.

He said that during his research into Britten in the mid-1990s, his vision of the man and his works had always been at odds with the accepted stories and so-called facts surrounding Britten and his life.

'I felt that the Humphrey Carter biography, which is now 20 years old, told a particular story and quite a limited one. I wanted to expand that and turn Britten into a historical figure rather than a damaged musician – which is what most people took away from the previous biography.'

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Certainly the portrait that Paul Kildea conjures up is a complex one. He reveals Britten to be a man of conflicting and contradictory traits. He was also someone who showed different sides of his personality to different people at different times.

'When writing the book it was a question of balancing the man and the music. It's about finding how it all was apart of his life. It's about evaluating the music, his personality, putting him in a historical context and assessing his historical significance. So it's a tremendous balancing act and so many people have an opinion on him that you have to weigh them all up.

'What I have found in Britten scholarship is, and you're right he is much written about, but a number of the myths and stories that are told about him are just repeated from one book to the next. So I have tended to look at these stories and interpret them sceptically, and hopefully accurately, as my historical and musical background allows.'

He said that one of the huge joys of this 15-year quest has been to get close to Britten through the mountain of letters, diaries, books, notes and manuscripts he produced over the years.

These have all been preserved at The Red House in Aldeburgh, his former home and now the headquarters of the Britten-Pears Foundation.

'Thankfully he was a hoarder – he kept everything. So there was sense that you can get a first-hand account of things from Britten himself. When you have such a good archive then it is possible to write something which is very close to the man and it is possible to get under his skin. This is what I hope I have done.'

He said that the one thing that comes through the complex layers of Britten's personality was that the focus of his life was squarely on his music. From a very early age that was all that really mattered. Kildea says that it becomes clear very quickly that Britten possessed a brilliant musical mind. 'He would read music like other people would read books. From a very young age he would go to bed with scores and read them as books. He could hear the music in his head.'

So was he aware that he was special?

'I think he regarded himself as unusual as a child but not extraordinary and certainly demanded attention as a response to that. But, from adolescence onwards he just regarded himself as a hired working composer who was never going to measure up to the standards of his gods which were Mozart and Schubert.

'But, towards the end of his life, and although he would never put himself in their class, Peter Pears did say that Britten recognised that he had certain ideas and managed to express them better than many other contemporary composers.'

One of the most unusual facets of young Britten's life was his unshakable certainty that he was going to be a composer. This was a very unusual career choice for a boy from Lowestoft in the 1920s. There were very few people who could make a living from composing alone but he had no interest in doing anything else.

'He was incredibly driven from a very young age. He had incredible confidence and he didn't entertain for one second any suggestion that he would be anything other than a composer.'

As with all great success stories talent and determination can only get you so far. Luck also has a part to play and Britten had tremendous luck when he came across his musical mentor Frank Bridge. 'Bridge gave him the confidence to explore his talent.'

One of the greatest conundrums of Britten's life was the fact that he resolutely refused to move out of the county of his birth. 'His desire to remain in Suffolk tells us a lot about his personality. He was a very cautious person and hated the hassle of London and all big cities – he hated New York for instance – he just felt he needed clear space in his head in order to compose.

'I think because he was so happy in his childhood and so loved Suffolk, he was able to retreat into a very calm, very safe place which allowed him to work.

'He was never going to be an urban composer. He really didn't enjoy the rough and tumble of the literary or the music scene in London. He had great disdain for that sort of world. He didn't even want the stimulation of meeting other writers or composers. It didn't mean anything to him.'

When he did encounter people he did want to meet, Britten then invited them to stay with him at Aldeburgh.

Although Britten hated big city life he was a great world traveller and during the 1960s music sparked some surprising friendships and triggered a fresh bout of controversy when he started to make regular visits to the Soviet Union.

Music was such a focus of his life and he was such an idealist he had no concept that a burgeoning friendship with Russian composers and musicians such as Shostakovich and Rostropovich would cause such alarm at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 'On the one hand you can say: 'Wow, isn't he ahead of his time' because he's saying that music should rise above all the politics but on the other hand he never addressed the fact that his frequent visits to Russia were of enormous PR value to the Soviet authorities.'

Kildea says that Britten remains a fascinating person and after 15 years of study he believes that he has come to understand the man and his music,

'I think I have got a reasonable handle on his music and I hope I have an understanding of his personality. I come away from the book with enormous admiration for him. But, he remains a hard man to pin down because there are so many contradictions. I have had to work through those contradictions and present an accurate picture of the man which I hope I have done.

'Some people found him loving and funny and others stern and distant. He did seem to be this incredible paradox.

'But then, there is a counter argument of course that there were people who lasted the distance and were around Britten for the majority of his life – people like Myfanwy Piper and John Piper.'

Paul said despite all the contradictions and revelations like the fact that Britten was found, after his death from a heart condition, to be suffering from tertiary-stage syphilis, he found that Britten was an extraordinary individual.

'My view of Britten was different to the one that prevailed that the book would be full of things which haven't been aired before. But I wanted to set them into a coherent narrative and that's what I set out to do. I wasn't surprised, I suppose, at the picture I ended up painting.

'Biography is all about the era it is written and I suppose that people will want to talk about Britten in a different way in a different time.'

He said that one of the most interesting things about Britten's life was the way that he remained devoted to his partner Peter Pears and yet, at times, gave the impression to the outside world that he wasn't in a gay relationship.

'I did get a sense of a changing relationship with Peter Pears – not in a sinister way – but it was a very long and fulfilling relationship for both of them and relationships do change. But, until the end of his life, here was a relationship in which two men loved and respected one another hugely.

'It's easy to forget that it was a brave decision to live quite openly as a couple at the time. I don't think it was easy for Britten, I think it was easier for Pears, but Britten wasn't built that way.

'It did transgress the social propriety of the time and I think the way that Britten dealt with it was to pretend to everyone that it wasn't really happening. It was his way of surviving.'

t Benjamin Britten: A Life In The Twentieth Century is published by Allen Lane, priced £30.