On April 29 and 30, 1967, at London’s Alexandra Palace, a benefit concert was held for the International Times, an underground newspaper that had been the target of a police raid. Billed as “The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream,” it was headlined by Pink Floyd, who played their set just as dawn broke. Other performers included Soft Machine, Pete Townshend, and Yoko Ono — whose future husband, John Lennon, wandered through the audience. Doses of the psychedelic drug DET were given out for free. In between acts, prerecorded music was piped into the hall: the “Courtly Dances” from Benjamin Britten’s 1953 opera “Gloriana.”
It was apt symbolism for a career with a persistent hint of counterculture. Britten, the consummate musical insider — an expert navigator of the establishment, a musical traditionalist with a prim sense of rectitude, a go-to for national commemorations, whether coronations (“Gloriana,” a rare flop) or remembrances (the “War Requiem,” a nonpareil success); Britten, the consummate outsider — a conscientious objector, a homosexual when (for most of his life) homosexuality was explicitly outlawed, a musical provocateur who could flaunt a disregard for propriety, who made operas out of tales of misfits and defilers, the furtive and forbidden. Which is it? As Neil Powell’s new biography “Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music” explores, it was, always — and inseparably — both.
Britten, born a century ago this November, joined a line of great British composers situated just outside their nation’s mainstream: Handel, the hard-charging foreigner; Elgar, the provincial Catholic; Britten, the gay pacifist. Like those forebears, Britten had a penchant for musical ritual — passacaglia, variations, processionals, and recessionals — but restaged the ceremonies with idiosyncratic brilliance. Life, too, was anchored by routine: a long-term partnership, professional and personal, with tenor Peter Pears, a tight orbit of collaborators and confidants (ejecting, as if by centrifugal force, those whose presence turned too disruptive), a ferocious work ethic.
The externality, though, remained acute, and Britten leveraged it, forever giving voice to outsiders — from “Peter Grimes,” his first opera, to Aschenbach, the protagonist of “Death in Venice,” his last — the tension, in turn, giving the music urgency and point. The crucial, man-to-man confrontation in Britten’s “Billy Budd” takes place offstage, the audience left to imagine the drama amid a slow file of orchestral chords: circumspection as coup de théâtre.
A poet and biographer (whose subjects have included George Crabbe, author of the source for “Peter Grimes”), Powell writes about the music accurately — and occasionally with flair — but his real strength is literary. This is the biography’s strength, as well: Britten’s was a life bound up in words. The bulk of his catalog is vocal music — songs, choral works, operas — and Powell’s close readings of Britten’s choice of texts become a layer of biographical illustration in themselves.
Britten was a prolific letter writer (in many ways, the best biographical resource on Britten remains Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke’s six-volume edition of his letters); Powell chooses from the reserve with an appraiser’s eye and a judicious ability to read between the lines — and to recognize which lines are worth reading between. Early on, deconstructing Britten’s jocular, mock-schoolboy program note for his “Simple Symphony,” Powell brings out Britten’s intuitive feel for how language can both conceal and reveal — a lifelong artistic concern. Late in the book, Powell’s deft gloss on an exchange of love letters between Britten, near death, and Pears, at a late-career peak — “Britten focuses on the present and anticipates the future, while Pears looks back gratefully to the past”— is a poignancy of swift, Britten-esque efficiency.
It is not a critical biography. Powell is unabashedly a fan: Britten’s accomplishments are deserved; failures are mitigated; criticisms and jealousies, while diligently cataloged, are testament to his success. (Even the epigraphs are compliments.) The book is as much an elucidation of Britten’s stature, a triumphal arch for his career, tracing the progress from the diffident but stubborn dentist’s son from the Suffolk coast to the honored guest at both Buckingham and Alexandra Palaces — while living out, in quiet defiance, the prototype of a long-term gay marriage, exceptional and unexceptional at the same time. In Powell’s personal summation to the book, that “astonishing lesson” is saved for last: the possibility “for a homosexual couple to live decently and unapologetically in provincial England.”
It is reminiscent of the splendid set piece in Alan Hollinghurst’s novel of gay life in 1980s London, “The Swimming-Pool Library”: Will, the book’s young, insouciant protagonist and narrator, attends a performance of “Billy Budd” at Covent Garden, feeling “trapped with this intensely British problem: the opera that was, but wasn’t, gay” — until, during intermission, he sees Peter Pears, aged and infirm, with his “stroke-slackened but beautiful white-crested head,” coming into the hall. “I felt the whole occasion subtly transform,” Will marvels, “and the opera whose ambiguity we had carped at take on a kind of heroic or historic character.” Ambiguous, subtle, transformative: No small part of Britten’s genius was turning the imposed discretions of his life into the outward glories of his music.Matthew Guerrieri, a classical music critic and author of “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination,’’ can be reached at matthewguerrieri@ gmail.com.