A Life in the Twentieth Century
ISBN 9781846142321 | 688 pages | 17 Jul 2013 | Penguin Global | 6.02 x 9.21in | 18 - AND UP
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Benjamin Britten was Britain's greatest twentieth-century composer - and in the eyes of many, the greatest since Purcell (a figure who often inspired him) three hundred years earlier. Britten broke decisively with the romantic, nationalist school of figures such as Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams and recreated English music in a fresh, modern, European form. With Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951) he arguably composed the last operas - from any composer in any country - which have entered both the popular consciousness and the musical canon.
He did all this while carrying two disadvantages to worldly success - his passionately held pacifism, which made him very suspect to the authorities in the years during and immediately after the Second World War - and his homosexuality, specifically his forty-year relationship with Peter Pears, for whom many of his greatest operatic roles and vocal works were created. One of the strengths of Kildea's book is the way it traces the development of this relationship and portrays their life together. For Britten, that life was increasingly lived in and around Aldeburgh, whose atmosphere and personalities form another wonderful dimension to the book. Kildea shows clearly how Britten made this creative community, notably with the foundation of the Aldeburgh Festival and the building of Snape Maltings, but also how costly the determination that this required was in terms of his friendships and the lives of some of those around him.
Above all, this book helps us understand the relationship of Britten's music to his life, and takes us as far into his creative process as we are ever likely to go. Kildea reads dozens of Britten's works with enormous intelligence and sensitivity, and always in a way which those without formal musical training can understand. It is one of the most moving and enjoyable biographies of a creative artist of any kind to have appeared for years.
‘Paul Kildea's superb biography gets closer to Benjamin Britten than any other. His deep insight into Britten's public and private life uncovers a troubled brilliance which has few parallels in twentieth-century music. This is a compelling, incisive, revelatory - and sometimes disturbing - book, both as musical commentary and as narrative’ Colin Matthews, composer and former assistant to Benjamin Britten
‘Paul Kildea has, perhaps against the odds, given us a compelling new Britten. Beautifully written, meticulously researched and with a professional's ear for the musical achievements, his compulsively readable new biography boasts an impressive historical sweep and - most important - an unflappable sensitivity to the complexities of his troubled subject. This is by far the best treatment of Britten and his music - and one of the best biographies of any composer - that I know’ Roger Parker, Professor of Music, King's College, London
‘This at last is the biography Britten deserves: engaged with the music and fascinated by the composer's place in his own times, Kildea presents a truly convincing portrait of a great artist’ Ian Bostridge
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