Spine creased and dog-eared, Humphrey Carpenter’s Benjamin Britten: A Biography is a gateway to a world I often like to escape to and one which continues to fascinate whenever I’m there. It is one of a handful of books to which I turn for all things Britten. It is one of my ‘Britten Bibles’.
My relationship with Benjamin Britten is a weird thing. He’s always been present, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in my periphery and at other times somewhere in the distance undetected. That ‘presence’ has been important to me for a long, long time although why, I’m not entirely sure. It is as though his music, his achievements are always on my mind to a greater or lesser extent. It is as though Britten extends a guiding hand.
Come on. That really is weird, isn’t it? As weird as it is pretentious. I’m not a composer. I’m not a professional musician. And in the heady world of the classical music cognascenti I can barely get my coat a hanger in the cloakroom. But it is the truth. Britten – his life, his achievements and his world – have been present in most of my life. As we approach the centenary celebrations of his birth, I find that fascination with him fascinating in itself. What is it about the strange, spindly gay man with wiry hair from East Suffolk that keeps me coming back for more? What is his appeal exactly?
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to discover that I never really feel as though I know as much about him as perhaps I should. Unlike friends and associates, I don’t have an encyclopaedic memory. It’s not a given that obsessives retain facts – if they did they’d perhaps not have to ask quite so many questions as they do of themselves.
The questions I have about Britten – what sort of a man was he? – revolve around one basic fact: I never met the man. Instead, I was introduced to the notion of a man from Suffolk with celebrity status via my class music teacher when I was 9 years old, five years after Britten had died.
Since then, I’ve increasingly been interested in the world that Britten occupied, the world that developed after his death and, now this year, his lasting appeal. In exploring those worlds, it is as though I’m trying desperately make up for not being old enough to meet him and judge the man for myself.
Little wonder then that in amongst a whole array of books, recordings and personal experiences Humphrey Carpenter’s Benjamin Britten: A Biography is consistently one of the books I turn to first.
Carpenter’s biography is a page-turner. Easy to read, the author guides his reader around the composer’s homes in East Suffolk, London and beyond, peppering the timeline with delicious anecdotes from a variety of Britten’s friends and associates, insodoing painting a picture of Britten in a realistic, if at times negative, light.
Published in 1992, Carpenter documents the experiences, thoughts and feelings of those who interacted with Britten, alongside extracts from letters and diaries as well as throwing in some musical analysis too. It’s all-encompassing. It’s comprehensive. It’s warts and all. In comparison with many other fawning publications about other composers, Carpenter’s work is refreshing. I love it for that.
Not everyone felt quite so enthusiastic about it when the book was published in 1992. Reviewing the book in 1993 for the New York Times, David Blum wrote,
Carpenter has made the mistake of defining the plant by the soil and attempting to force relevance from the extrinsic.
Disappointingly (though perhaps hardly surprising given the classical music world), Blum also in part dismissed Carpenter’s analysis of Britten’s output on account of the author not having a musical training. And don’t get Blum started on the way Carpenter focuses on the sexual orientation of the composer and what impact that did or did not have on his compositional technique.
Each to his own. That’s what journalists do: follow a particular angle. And that’s how histories are written and subsequently rewritten. And its that which makes the study of a man you’ve never met even more an irresistible opportunity. It makes attempting to answer the question of what sort of man this reluctant celebrity was even more difficult.
But, Carpenter’s book is more than a history of a complex, sometimes paradoxical character. The book is also a reminder of my past, a placeholder in my own timeline. Carpenter’s book acts as an anchor in my own experience, transporting me back not only geographically to my home county of Suffolk, but to Aldeburgh where I spent two and half years working on the Festival Britten set up. Carpenter’s biography also takes me back to a memory of a time when I sought to understand more about the place in which I worked.
Carpenter’s work provided a much needed back-story, blowing the lid on a seemingly eccentric town and fleshing out the characters colleagues would refer to from the past when I worked for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1995. Shame I didn’t have the presence of mind to actually buy the book when I was working there – maybe it might have made me pause before abandoning the place in 1997.
The book transformed the list of bed and breakfast landlords and landladies, the people to unquestionably keep sweet, and sundry other ‘movers and shakers’ in the town into people with more of a documented past.
Reading Carpenter’s book feels like getting the gossip no-one dares mutter to one another in the High Street. It is in a very real sense, a kind of survival guide for living and working in Aldeburgh, validating the town’s sense of self-importance by placing it at the centre of a story about a man with international renown. At least it was when I read it for the first time. That inevitably poses the question: would it still be as useful a primer fifteen years later?
I bought my copy in Aldeburgh Bookshop. It was handed over to me in a brown paper bag. “Would you like a bookmark with that?” asked the shop assistant.
I return to the book from time to time, usually going to the index first looking for a work or the name of someone Britten might have collaborated with. Gobbits of information that fill in gaps or act as a springboard for further understanding.
And each subsequent reading attaches another layer to the history: superimposing understanding with personal experience.
I’ve since lost the bookmark. No matter. It wasn’t necessary. Carpenter’s book is one of the few books I’ve read cover to cover in the space of a week.
The bookmark is long gone, discarded in favour of a photograph of a boat on Aldeburgh Beach taken from the sea view bedroom of the hotel I was staying in during a visit.
The picture is part of a collection of pictures when newlywed friends posed for pictures on the beach in the town they’d met and fallen in love with. The same town they’d come to to play in the Snape Maltings Concert Hall where I worked. And the same town they now returned to get married in. Their personal stories intertwined with mine; our stories part of Aldeburgh’s, a town of celebrities and non-entities, documented and un-documented.
Carpenter’s book isn’t an extant source – that comes in a future post. Rather, the biography is an important part of the canon. A starting point for research. A book teeming with multiple personal histories spanning multiple periods of time all of which converge on a bizarre part of Suffolk because of one man: a man I’ve never met.
More posts about Benjamin Britten, Aldeburgh and Snape are available at www.thoroughlygood.me/britten.
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