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A Life for Music

by Neil Powell

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9774-0
Publisher: Henry Holt

A probing inquiry into Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), one of England’s greatest modern composers, as well as a survey of mid-20th-century provincial England.

Powell (Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations, 2009, etc.) embraces all that was mundane, traditional and familiar to his subject, intentionally interrogating the quotidian relationships, patterns and social norms that informed his creative development. At times, the narrative reads with the comfort of the tried-and-true English cozy, minus the murders. Nevertheless, it is precisely Powell’s focus on Britten’s daily “Englishness” that is the book’s greatest strength. While other authors have focused on Britten’s cosmopolitan contacts and his place within a larger English musical historiography, Powell’s approach allows for readers to understand Britten on his own terms first, terms informed by Britten’s familial relationships, pronounced musical tastes and loyalty to his early musical mentor, Frank Bridge. Inasmuch as Powell’s biography provides many new insights into Britten’s world, it is perhaps the detailed accounts of the relationships between Britten and other important, but underexposed composers that provides the freshest and arguably most useful information. Otherwise little-known bits about John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Thomas Beecham migrate from Britten’s diaries into Powell’s text, often accompanied by Powell’s insightful analysis. The same can be said for the author’s well-crafted discussion of Britten’s close working and personal relationship with W.H. Auden, a relationship otherwise thoroughly examined by past biographers. Although Powell’s conclusions about everything from Britten’s sexual relationships to his interest in particular musical forms occasionally overreach, they at least beg new questions. With Britten’s centennial year quickly approaching, new questions are greatly welcome.

As pleasurable as hearing Britten’s music for the first time: familiar, but new and rich enough to keep you coming back.