November 2013

Erin Lyndal Martin


Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by Neil Powell

It isn't often that a classical music composer joins the likes of the Queen of England. Yet on September 1, 2013, the composer Benjamin Britten became the only person other than the Queen to earn his full name on a fifty-pence piece. In celebration of Britten's centenary, a postage stamp bearing his image was issued earlier this year. England is indeed proud of her native son, the prolific composer of operas, song cycles, vocal works, and chamber music. The man called by fellow composer Sir Michael Tippett "simply the most musical person I have ever met" is the subject of the biography Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by poet and music writer Neil Powell.

At more than 500 pages, Powell leaves few details unsaid about Britten's life, drawing on the composer's diaries and correspondence for much of the content. Unfortunately, these quotations, with little exposition by Powell, make one think that simply publishing the diaries and letters would have been a wiser choice. This is especially true because Powell's desire for comprehensiveness often leads to less than judicious use of said quotations -- do readers really need to know what Britten wrote about the condition of the ship he took from the United States to England?

In addition to overwhelming the reader with minutiae, Powell's book suffers from a far graver problem: it gives barely any context for Britten's life or music. In the preface, which stands at two and a half pages, Powell asserts that Britten is England's greatest composer. Yet, Powell does not support that statement with analysis of Britten's greatness. This book is clearly written for those already enamored of Britten and his music, not those hoping to situate Britten within his time or musical context. Powell gives few mentions of what Britten's contemporaries were writing and performing, so readers have no sense of why Britten was venerated in his own time. Powell also occasionally makes grand pronouncements without any foreshadowing. He writes that Britten's mother "had prevented him from leading the life that he must now begin to lead." While it is a common opinion among Britten scholars that his mother did hold him back emotionally and creatively, Powell never gives any explanation of this, and his only discussion of that theory is that single sentence.

In his personal life, Britten was known for being cold and writing off those who he felt had betrayed him, going so far as to refer to estranged friends as "corpses." Quotes from diaries and letters don't exude warmth, to put it mildly, but Powell doesn't really discuss Britten's frigidity aside from a brief mention of Britten possessing typical middle-class British reticence. Readers seeking more than facts of names and dates are advised to look elsewhere for a course in Britten.

Perhaps Powell's own training is, in part, to blame for the book's many weaknesses. Primarily a poet, Powell has written one other biography (of the poet George Crabbe) and a book about music, The Language of Jazz. While someone with little experience writing about classical music could, of course, still write an outstanding biography of a composer, Powell offers little evidence that he has expertise on the subject. For instance, in discussing Britten's legacy, he makes no mention of Arvo Part's outstanding piece "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten," a well-known piece in the contemporary classical world. Powell could have bolstered his lack of knowledge through more extensive use of quotes from those better versed in classical music.

Given that it is Britten's centenary, it is no surprise that there is a glut of Britten-related media newly available, and Powell faces competition from those sources. Ultimately, those other sources provide a more comprehensive picture of Britten. Paul Kildea's Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, published less than a month before Powell's book, is a more striking choice. In Kildea's book -- his third book devoted to Britten -- he goes so far as to posit a new reason for Britten's cause of death. (Britten has always been said to have died of heart disease, but Kildea theorizes that said disease was caused by syphilis acquired from Britten's dallying partner Peter Pears.)

Is Britten England's greatest composer of all time? Perhaps. But it will take more than Powell's lackluster chronicle of the composer's life to convince anyone.

Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music by Neil Powell
Henry Holt and Co.
ISBN: 978-0805097740
528 pages