(by Hans Keller, Alan Bennett and Philip Brett), some are new. It can be disorientating: Paul Kildea’s waspish appraisal of Britten’s fellow biographers (rightly identifying Michael Kennedy’s pre-eminence) rubs shoulders with Keller’s gloriously impatient 1960 defence of Gloriana; Colin Matthews plunges us into the frenzied final scoring of Death in Venice while Ian Bostridge explores the Britten-soaked 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom.
Curiously, editor Mark Bostridge left it to Nicholas Kenyon to introduce the essays, but his trenchant survey alone is worth the price of the book. He brilliantly sets out the ‘contest for possession’ that has dogged Britten, and reminds us that the reception of both leading biographies have been dominated by the unprovable, second-hand account of a sexual trauma. Kenyon rightly stresses the importance of Philip Brett’s ground-breaking work on the centrality of Britten’s sexuality to his work. Indeed, Brett’s rigorously argued essay (a 1997 Proms lecture) is the stand-out piece. He makes a convincing case that Britten set out to be ‘head boy’ of British composers by colonising those very areas he supposedly despised in his ‘insider’ forebears: ‘Britten’s artistic effort was an attempt to disrupt the centre that it occupied with the marginality it expressed.’
Janette Miller’s account of her time as the original Flora is a vital corrective to the view that only boys were of interest to Britten. Edward Gardner’s confession that he felt ‘strait-jacketed’ by the minutely detailed scores until he heard Britten’s own conducting leads to an important insight: that Britten achieved greatness only when he allowed himself ‘unusual freedom’. Ian Bostridge reminds us of the stature of the works for children with subtle eloquence, while Roger Vignoles’s illuminates the neglected Five Canticles.
For those familiar with the literature on Britten in the 1930s there’s little new, and in The Race to the finish John Bridcut treads old ground, though it confirms him as the most intuitive writer on Britten today.