rehensiveness: also whether Kildea would match Carpenter’s frankness about Britten’s emotionally constricted personality, not to mention his pedophilic proclivity.
The titles of Carpenter’s opening and closing chapters threw down that gauntlet — Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy and The best brought-up little boy you could imagine — and when I reviewed his book for this newspaper in 1992 I thought they were an astute synopsis of his subject. I also developed the conviction that if Britten had still been alive then, he could well have been in jail (except for the protection of his friends in the Establishment).
Kildea seeks to ‘‘ correct’’ that view of the composer. Though he is willing to criticise some of the music (not enough, in my view) and acknowledge that, especially in later life, Britten often treated colleagues and friends — anyone! — in surly, graceless fashion, his book is a strong (I won’t say hagiographic) attempt at rehabilitation.
His closing paragraph (in the concluding section that, far more deferentially, is called Der Abschied (The Farewell, after Mahler’s Song of the Earth) is: ‘‘ He was the twentieth century’s consummate musician, but he was also the spoilt child [EM] Forster once identified, who stamped his foot until he got his way, ruthlessly dispatching those who obstructed him. In so doing, he produced a body of works and performances that was unrivalled in the twentieth century and is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.’’
The personal assessment there is justified, but the musical comparison sheer hyperbole. And, though there is much social and aesthetic history to suggest that many people have believed that fine art justifies appalling behaviour, even Kildea’s partisan approach is a tough journey. Get too close to the flame and you’ll surely be burned.
Britten was born 100 years ago, on the Feast of St Cecilia, patroness of music (November 22), the son of a Suffolk dentist