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Benjamin Britten: A Biography Paperback – 1992

3.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This new biography is typical of the author's style: comprehensive, probing, and objective. Access to materials from the estate of renowned English composer Edward Benjamin Britten (1913-76) enabled Carpenter to write an enlightening study that focuses on Britten's homosexuality and how it influenced his work. Throughout his life, Britten achieved significant accomplishments yet never felt completely accepted. He followed a strict code of perfectionism, suffered from bouts of depression, and found it difficult to "loosen up." Wrapped around his spirit, though, was the peculiar thrust of artistic drive that is so characteristic of brilliance. Britten received accolades during his lifetime, but full appreciation and acknowledgement did not come until after his death. While much has been written about Britten in the past 17 years, Carpenter's book is an important contribution. Highly recommended. Music Book Society main selection.
- Kathleen Sparkman, Baylor Univ., Waco, Tex.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A first-rate, if somewhat less than magisterial, treatment by Carpenter (The Brideshead Generation, 1990, etc.) of the life and works of one of the 20th century's towering musical figures--the man who put English music firmly on the larger European map. This is like a run-through of a great symphony by a major orchestra under a more-than-adequate international conductor. All the notes--Carpenter's prodigious research--are firmly in place. The major themes--Britten's overly doting relationship with his mother; his artistic preoccupation with the loss of innocence, which may have stemmed from childhood sexual abuse; his homosexual ``marriage'' to Peter Pears; his indiscrete relationships with young boys; his pacifism; his generosity and his selfishness; his depression and physical illnesses, all transcended by a phenomenal artistic (and especially compositional) energy that allowed him to turn out a staggering series of major and minor works in an unusually full 63 years of life--are crisp, clear, and skillfully played. Above all, Carpenter's respect for the intelligence of his readers shines through, causing him to eschew facile interpretation. And yet. Not only is the narrative overlong (much incidental detail), but the final stamp of passionate identification with the subject is absent. Britten's sparse anecdotes about homosexual rape by a schoolmaster, for example, are handled with exquisite discretion but lead to only a jarring, unnecessary inquiry (``Could they have both been fantasies on Britten's part, sparked off while his imagination was at work on his operas?''). Even readers who answer ``Not bloody likely'' have a right to the author's judgment on such matters. Not written merely from the card index--the book's a good deal better than that, and will be required reading by anyone seriously interested in its subject. But the sense that Carpenter has put his heart into perfect sync with Britten's own faulty organ isn't there. (Three 16-page photo inserts--not seen) -- Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 744 pages
  • Publisher: Faber Faber Inc (1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571143253
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571143252
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,189,454 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 15, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a good but not outstanding biography of the great Benjamin Britten. Carpenter was well equipped to tackle Britten's life. An experienced biographer, some of his prior work, like his very good biography of Auden, covers the same period and some of the same aspects of British artistic life as this book. Carpenter had the cooperation of the Britten estate and a wide variety of Britten's friends and associates. It is based on a wide variety of documentary material and interviews. This book is thorough, well written, and organized well. As a narrative of Britten's personal and professional lives, it is very strong and unlikely to be surpassed. The book shows very well Britten's remarkable creativity. A disciplined worker, Britten produced a large volume of outstanding music while also performing and working as a major force in the development of British musical life. Carpenter also shows, though implicitly, that Britten was a charismatic figure. He had a remarkable ability to attract the services of other talented individuals, allowing him to realize very ambitious projects such as his operas and the development of the Aldeburgh festival. Carpenter is fair in this treatment of Britten, showing both the attractive and unfortunate aspects of his personality, such as his tendency to callously discard co-workers when he felt he could work more productively with others.

Carpenter is less good in dealing with Britten's music. This is true both for Britten's output in general and specific works. Nowhere in this book do we get any sense of why Britten chose to focus on vocal music. Britten did produce important orchestral and chamber work, but his most important output was opera, less conventional music theater like his church parables, choral music, and songs.
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Format: Paperback
This book defined Britten for a generation; it darkened his reputation. It's well-written and the product of thorough research, many inteviews with persons of varying veracity: those dismissed by Britten often bearing grudges. Such anecdotes and and opinions illuminate the intensity, sometime hostility, and psychological transferences surrounding Britten's charisma. The book is still good background reading on events and atmospheres in Britten's life. All sources verify Britten's volatility, his flashpoint temper, and his terrible fear of performing: Carpenter addresses these weaknesses honestly. The book's great flaw is pursuing attitudes commonplace at the time of writing, but today intolerable, on Britten's sexuality: the unbalanced obsession with sexuality as the force behind Britten's actions, words, and music. Contra Carpenter, the Britten/Pears relationship wasn't a severe schoolmaster (Pears) dominating a frail homosexual (Britten), but a fruitful, inspiring partnership between a great composer and one of the finest singers of the age. And Britten was no paedophile: he was a man of conscience, who apparently applied his conscience to his behaviour. The book's perception of gays and gay relationships is out of date and out of court. Descriptions of the music promote the worst injustice of all. Carpenter seeks a sexual motivation in every bar. What's actually found in Britten's music is not sexual influence, but influences of Berg, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Mozart, and Schubert, employed in solving musical or dramatic problems in his work. Carpenter's 'psychoanalysis' of Britten's music is ill-informed, ill-judged, and unjust. As Britten himself said, 'If you want to understand my music, you should listen to it'.
3 Comments 14 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Paperback
I agree with another reviewer here - from the point of view of factual (e.g chronological) details, this book is OK, but take the "psychology" with a grain of salt. In fact, it's obvious to me that it's been written by someone without an up-to-date knowledge of modern psychology and the personality traits that exist in both victims and perpetrators of abuse. I can write here from two perspectives - both as someone who experienced a traumatic event in childhood (not, I'm glad to say, sexual abuse) and as someone with a background in modern psychology. I don't suppose it will ever be possible to say the last word on whether BB had paedophile tendencies or not. On the basis of my own knowledge and experience I would say not - but I do think he shows a lot of signs of having been the victim. Also, I wonder if there is a (perhaps unconscious) tendency to interpret actions by a homosexual man in a way that we wouldn't if the man was heterosexual. The stereotype of the gay man with an interest in young boys is a very 1950s stereotype isn't it? Also, there is no reason to imagine that if someone is gay it must pervade everything they do, and everything should be interpreted in that light. It's a pity there wasn't more focus on the wonderful music.
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By A Customer on July 13, 1997
Format: Hardcover
Carpenter, through numerous quotes from colleagues, friends and written correspondence from the composer himself provides a rare and intimate view into Britten's creative mind and personality. The only tedious aspect of this in-depth biography is in Carpenter's descriptions of Britten's pieces. Carpenter tries to speculate about how much of Britten's real life went into his music. The result comes off as searching for Britten's homosexuality and lost innocense in tones. It is however an absorbing and educating read
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