This book is a biography of Benjamin Britten - one of the great English composers and musicians of the 20th century - which was written independently, and subsequently authorized by the Britten estate. It is based on an examination of a mass of published and unpublished letters and documents and scores, as well as first-hand interviews with numerous people whose lives or careers touched those of Britten and his partner Pears, both within and beyond the immediate Aldeburgh circle. The book also looks at the homosexual thread running through Britten's life and music, and he also assimilates the evidence of the published and forthcoming correspondence and diaries. As the biographer of W.H. Auden, the authior is also able to give a detailed account of their friendship, and its lapse in later years.
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A first-rate, if somewhat less than magisterial, treatment by Carpenter (The Brideshead Generation, 1990, etc.) of the life and works of one of the 20th century's towering musical figures - the man who put English music firmly on the larger European map. This is like a run-through of a great symphony by a major orchestra under a more-than-adequate international conductor. All the notes - Carpenter's prodigious research - are firmly in place. The major themes - Britten's overly doting relationship with his mother; his artistic preoccupation with the loss of innocence, which may have stemmed from childhood sexual abuse; his homosexual "marriage" to Peter Pears; his indiscrete relationships with young boys; his pacifism; his generosity and his selfishness; his depression and physical illnesses, all transcended by a phenomenal artistic (and especially compositional) energy that allowed him to turn out a staggering series of major and minor works in an unusually full 63 years of life - are crisp, clear, and skillfully played. Above all, Carpenter's respect for the intelligence of his readers shines through, causing him to eschew facile interpretation. And yet. Not only is the narrative overlong (much incidental detail), but the final stamp of passionate identification with the subject is absent. Britten's sparse anecdotes about homosexual rape by a schoolmaster, for example, are handled with exquisite discretion but lead to only a jarring, unnecessary inquiry ("Could they have both been fantasies on Britten's part, sparked off while his imagination was at work on his operas?"). Even readers who answer "Not bloody likely" have a right to the author's judgment on such matters. Not written merely from the card index - the book's a good deal better than that, and will be required reading by anyone seriously interested in its subject. But the sense that Carpenter has put his heart into perfect sync with Britten's own faulty organ isn't there. (Kirkus Reviews)