We're going to hear a lot of music by, and read a lot about the life of, Benjamin Britten this year. He was born on 22 November 1913 (yes, Saint Cecilia's Day); and died on 4 December 1976. Now that the usual period of eclipse which follows major figures' deaths (the same was true for Shostakovich who died the year before) has passed, assessments are being made that put the composer into the wider context than one for someone fit just for a British branch line.
Britten's life was an interesting one and much of his music has (auto-)biographical threads. A member of the musical and literary establishment, a traveler and someone active in the arts generally, Britten's achievement will be the better and more amply understood when his relationship with the widest cultural environments of the first three quarters of the twentieth century is studied.
Lucy Walker has produced a substantial volume, Britten in Pictures, at well over 250 pages for the ever-enterprising Boydell Press in association with The Britten-Pears Foundation, at which Walker is Director of Learning and Development. At first glance you'll surely be tempted to emphasize the "Pictures" aspect of the book. And this is indeed a truly magnificent collection of hundreds of images in color and black and white from the composer's childhood to a poignant chapter on the events immediately after his death, and in his memory. But more careful perusal quickly reveals that the book really is about the substance of Benjamin Britten, his work, friends and colleagues; and places which he loved, which inspired him and with which in one way or another he was closely associated.
You also realize just how important the people with whom he worked were to Britten; as were those otherwise (artistically) close to him. Page after page shows Britten's intelligent, engaged and inquiring face directed into or onto one musical or artistic project after another. Britten was far from the lone genius. People mattered much to him. And Britten in Pictures conveys the point well. If you remember that Britten lived the contradiction of wanting to be both insider (inside the establishment) and outsider (lone critic of it), some of the group photographs become particularly revealing. The same can be said when they are set in the context of your understanding of just how ruthless Britten was to those whom he felt had been disloyal to him and his musical values.
Christopher Grogan's (Directions of Collections and Heritage at the Foundation) sets the scene with a lengthy and well-referenced introduction. Its subtitle is significant: "looking behind Britten's 'Enigmatic smile'". For Britten both did have such a smile, a demeanor, a warmth and yet a reserve; but there was also much to be uncovered about his achievements at which this book succeeds – obliquely, though well.
The book is then divided into six chapters of roughly equal length (excepting the aforementioned "Praise we great men: after 1976"). These deal with the distinct periods of Britten's life: his youth, to 1939; then four on the decades (approximately) from the start of the Second World War until his death – each is prefaced by an outline chronology of events and works. As well as picture credits and a short bibliography, there's an index of the 175+ persons who are mentioned or otherwise appear. Peter Pears (Britten's long time musical and personal soulmate and partner) is far and away the most often-featured, of course.
Being almost 10" x 10", the quality of the early photographs (and sketches, extracts from manuscripts, paintings, instruments and scores/books in his collection etc) is high. Each has a meaningful caption, also attractively designed. While the book is not florid in appearance, it's more than a snapshot album… many photographs (such as the one on page 208 recording a stay in Venice) are "set" with appropriate borders and background; in this case a hint of the lagoon.
So Britten in Pictures looks like a "coffee table" book. In fact, although it's a delight to handle and browse, it does a significant job of providing a well-digested, dimensioned and proportioned commentary on the life and work of one of the last century's greatest musicians, and a substantial one. Walker's book is less reserved about some aspects of Britten's personal life than Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976: Pictures from a Life (ISBN-10: 0684159740 ISBN-13: 978-0684159744 first published in 1978). But there is neither prurience nor sensationalism.
Come to this book new or mildly curious about Benjamin Britten and you will be struck by the richness and depth of his world and the nature of his integration in and with it. Come as a Britten specialist and you will surely discover many new, exciting and enthralling aspects of the same. In either case – especially when you consider its price – Britten in Pictures is a vibrant and colorful addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in understanding the music and musicianship of Britten in his centenary year.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sealey.