Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He was a central figure of twentieth-century British classical music, and wrote music in many genres, from film scores to opera. His best known works include Peter Grimes and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
Born in Suffolk, the son of a dentist, Britten showed talent from an early age. He first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born in 1934. With the premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to international fame. Over the next nine years, he wrote six more operas, establishing himself as one of the leading twentieth-century composers in this genre.
Britten's interests as a composer were wide-ranging; he produced important music in such varied genres as orchestral, choral, solo vocal (much of it written for his life partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears), chamber and instrumental, as well as film music. He also took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, and was an outstanding pianist and conductor.
Together with Pears and the librettist/producer Eric Crozier, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival, and was responsible for the creation of Snape Maltings Concert Hall. In his last years, Britten was the first composer to be given a life peerage.
Youth and education
Benjamin Britten was born in the town of Lowestoft in Suffolk, England. His father, Robert Victor Britten (1878–1934), was a dentist and was well-liked by his patients who worked with him. In 1901, he married Edith Rhoda Hockey (1874–1937), a talented amateur musician who worked as a secretary for the Lowestoft Choral Society. Benjamin was the last of their four children. Edith gave the young Britten his first lessons in piano and notation. He showed musical gifts very early in life, making his first attempts at composition aged five. He started piano lessons with a teacher from his pre-prep school, Miss Ethel Astle, when he was seven years old, and viola lessons with Audrey Alston at the age of ten.
When Britten heard Frank Bridge’s orchestral poem The Sea at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 1927 he was, as he put it, ‘knocked sideways’. Alston was a family friend of Frank Bridge and arranged an introduction. After examining Britten's work, Bridge took him on as a composition pupil, and the first lesson took place on 10 January 1928, a few weeks after Britten's 14th birthday. One of the first pieces composed during the period of Bridge's tutelage was the Quatre Chansons Françaises for soprano and orchestra, though it appears that Britten's abilities as an orchestrator were essentially self-taught rather than learned from Bridge.
He was educated at Old Buckenham Hall in Suffolk, before moving onto Gresham's School, Holt in September 1928. In 1930, he won a Composition Scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London; his examiners were John Ireland, S.P. Waddington and Ralph Vaughan Williams. He continued his studies at the college, with Ireland as his composition teacher and Arthur Benjamin as his piano teacher. Britten also used his time in London to attend concerts and become better acquainted with the music of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Britten also intended postgraduate study in Vienna with Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg's student, but was eventually dissuaded by his parents, at the advice of the College staff.
Britten was a prolific juvenile composer: some 800 works and fragments precede his early published works. His first compositions to attract wide attention were A Hymn to the Virgin (1930), the Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932), and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1933 for the BBC Singers, who first performed it the following year. In this same period he wrote Friday Afternoons, a collection of 12 songs mostly for unison singing, for the pupils of Clive House School, Prestatyn where Britten's brother, Robert, was headmaster.
Early professional life
In April 1935 he was approached by the film director Alberto Cavalcanti to write the film score for the documentary The King's Stamp, produced by the GPO Film Unit. This may have been the suggestion of the BBC music producer and conductor Edward Clark. Britten subsequently met W. H. Auden, who was also working for the GPO Film Unit; together they worked on the films Coal Face and Night Mail. They also collaborated on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers Op. 8 (1936), radical both in politics and musical treatment, and subsequently other works including Cabaret Songs, On This Island, Paul Bunyan and Hymn to St. Cecilia.
Of more lasting importance to Britten was his meeting in 1937 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his life partner. In the same year he composed a Pacifist March (words, Ronald Duncan) for the Peace Pledge Union, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member, but the work was not a success and soon withdrawn. One of Britten's most noteworthy works from the 1930s was Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, Op. 10, written in 1937.
Work in America 1939-1942
In April 1939 Britten and Pears followed Auden to America. There, in 1940, Britten composed Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first of many song cycles for Pears (Britten composed his first individual work for Pears in 1937, as part of The Company of Heaven for the BBC). Already friends with the composer Aaron Copland, Britten encountered his latest works Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture, both of which manifestly influenced his own music. While in America Britten wrote his first music drama, Paul Bunyan, an operetta (to a libretto by Auden). The period in America was also remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto Op. 15, and Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20 (for full orchestra).
In the meantime, Britten had had his first encounter with Balinese gamelan music through the transcriptions for two pianos made by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee. Britten first met McPhee at Stanton Cottage in the summer of 1939, and the two subsequently performed a number of McPhee's transcriptions for a recording. This musical encounter was to bear fruit decades later in several Balinese-inspired works including The Prince of the Pagodas, Noye's Fludde and Death in Venice.
Return to England
Britten and Pears returned to England in April 1942. Britten completed the choral works Hymn to St. Cecilia (his last large-scale collaboration with Auden) and A Ceremony of Carols during the long sea voyage. Both Britten and Pears applied for recognition as conscientious objectors; Britten was initially allowed only non-combatant service in the military, but gained unconditional exemption on appeal. He had already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes based on the writings of Suffolk poet George Crabbe; he worked on the piece whilst living at 45a St John’s Wood High Street, the address now marked by a memorial plaque. Another plaque marks Britten's residence at Halliford Street in Islington.
Launching the Aldeburgh Festival
Back in 1937, with the inheritance following the death of his mother, Britten had bought The Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, which became his Suffolk home, and this is where he spent much of his time in 1944 working on Peter Grimes. The première of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in 1945 was his greatest success thus far. His next opera, The Rape of Lucretia, was presented at the newly formed Glyndebourne English Opera Company in 1946, and went on tour. Following the financial loss of the tour, it was decided that Glyndebourne would not send out any more tours, and in response, Britten along with Peter Pears, his librettist Eric Crozier and designer John Piper set up The English Opera Group with the express role of presenting new opera on tour. Britten wrote Albert Herring for the English Opera Group in 1947, and it was while on tour that Pears came up with the idea of mounting a Festival in the small Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, six miles from Snape, where Britten had now moved to a house on Crag Path.
The Aldeburgh Festival was duly launched in June 1948, with Albert Herring playing at the Jubilee Hall and Britten’s new cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra, Saint Nicolas, in the Parish Church. The Festival was an immediate success, and became an annual festival that continues to this day. New works by Britten featured in virtually every Festival until his death in 1976, including the premieres of his operas A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Jubilee Hall in 1960 and Death in Venice at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1973.
Late 1940s and the 1950s
From 1949 to 1951 he had his only private pupil, Arthur Oldham. One of Oldham's achievements was the setting for full orchestra of Britten's Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, for the Frederick Ashton ballet Le Rêve de Léonor (1949).
Peter Grimes was the first in a series of English operas, of which Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were particularly admired. His Shakespeare opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed in 1960. These operas share common themes. Even in his comic opera Albert Herring of 1947, all feature an 'outsider' character excluded or misunderstood by society. Often this is the eponymous protagonist, as in Peter Grimes and Owen Wingrave (1970). He composed Gloriana (1953) for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to celebrate the coronation of HM Queen Elizabeth II.
Britten was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in the Coronation Honours, 1953.
An increasingly important influence was the music of the East, an interest that was fostered by a tour with Pears in 1957, when Britten was struck by the music of the Balinese gamelan and by Japanese Noh plays. The fruits of this tour include the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and the series of semi-operatic "Parables for Church Performance": Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). One of Britten’s greatest achievements in the 1960s was his War Requiem, written for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral.
Britten developed close friendships with Russian musicians Dmitri Shostakovich, Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1960s. He composed his Cello Suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Rostropovich, premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival. Britten dedicated The Prodigal Son (the third and last of the 'Church Parables') to Shostakovich. He was honoured again by appointment to the Order of Merit (OM) on 23 March 1965.
Developing the Aldeburgh Festival
By the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its customary venues, and plans to build a new concert hall in Aldeburgh were not progressing, when redundant Victorian maltings buildings in the village of Snape, down the road from where Britten used to live, became available to hire. Britten had the vision that the largest of the malthouses could be converted to become a Concert Hall and Opera House. The converted 830-seat Snape Maltings Concert Hall was opened by HM The Queen on the opening of the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival on 2 June 1967 and was immediately hailed as one of the best concert halls in the country. At last the Aldeburgh Festival had a venue that could house larger orchestral works. Britten conducted the first Western performance of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony at Snape in 1970. Shostakovich had dedicated this score to Britten, and often spoke very highly of his music. The Concert Hall was destroyed by fire in 1969, but Britten was determined that it would be rebuilt in time for the following year’s Festival, which it duly was. The Queen once again attended the opening performance in 1970.
From the very start of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, Britten appeared as a performer and conductor, frequently accompanying Pears. However, in his last decade, Britten's health deteriorated. A heart operation in 1973 left Britten partially disabled and ended his performing career. His later works became more and more sparse in texture. They include the operas Owen Wingrave (1970) and Death in Venice (1971–1973), the Suite on English Folk Tunes "A Time There Was" (1974) and Third String Quartet (1975)— which drew on material from Death in Venice— as well as the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1975), written for Janet Baker.
Op92; A Birthday Hansel for high voice and harp (1975)
Performance by Alexander Kaimbacher (Tenor) and Volker Kempf (Harp).
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Later life, honours, and death
Having previously declined a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage – the first composer to have been so honoured – on 2 July 1976 as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. After the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten and Pears traveled to Norway, where Britten began writing Praise We Great Men, an unfinished composition for voices and orchestra based on the poem by Edith Sitwell. He returned to Aldeburgh in August, and wrote Welcome Ode for children's choir and orchestra. In November, Britten realised that he could no longer compose. On 22 November, Rita Thomson organised a champagne party and invited his friends, as well as Britten’s sisters Barbara and Beth, to bid farewell to the composer. When Rostropovich made his farewell visit a few days later, Britten gave him what he wrote of Praise We Great Men.
Britten died of congestive heart failure, stated by some to have been hastened by syphilis, at his Aldeburgh house on 4 December 1976 at the age of 63. His funeral service was held at Aldeburgh Parish Church three days later, and he was buried in its churchyard, with a gravestone carved by Reynolds Stone. The grave of his partner, Sir Peter Pears (knighted in 1978), lies next to his, and near to that of Imogen Holst, a close friend and colleague. A memorial stone to him was unveiled in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey in 1978.
The Red House in Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived and worked together from 1957 until Britten’s death in 1976, is now the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation, established to promote their musical legacy.
Britten's operas are firmly established in the international repertoire. According to Operabase, he has more operas played worldwide than any other composer born in the twentieth century, and only Puccini and Richard Strauss come ahead of him if the list is extended to all operas composed after 1900.
|Title||Opus||Description||Libretto and source||Premiere||Publ.|
|Paul Bunyan||Op. 17||Operetta in two acts, 114'||W. H. Auden, after the American folktale||5 May 1941, Brander Matthews Hall, New York||Faber|
|Peter Grimes||Op. 33||Opera in a prologue and three acts, 147'||Montagu Slater, after the poem The Borough by George Crabbe||7 June 1945, Sadler's Wells, London||B&H|
|The Rape of Lucretia||Op. 37||Opera in two acts, 107'||Ronald Duncan, after the play Le Viol de Lucrèce by André Obey||12 July 1946, Glyndebourne||B&H|
|Albert Herring||Op. 39||Comic opera in three acts, 137'||Eric Crozier, loosely after the short story Le Rosier de Mme. Husson by Guy de Maupassant||20 June 1947, Glyndebourne||B&H|
|The Beggar's Opera||Op. 43||Ballad opera, 108'||after the ballad opera by John Gay||24 May 1948, Cambridge Arts Theatre||B&H|
|Let's Make an Opera (The Little Sweep)||Op. 45||An Entertainment for Young People, 130'||Eric Crozier||14 June 1949, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Festival||B&H|
|Billy Budd||Op. 50||Opera in four acts, 162'||E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, after the novella by Herman Melville||1 December 1951, Royal Opera House, London||B&H|
|Billy Budd (revised)||Op. 50||Opera in two acts, 158'||9 January 1964, Royal Opera House, London (revised version)||B&H|
|Gloriana||Op. 53||Opera in three acts, 148'||William Plomer, after Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey||8 June 1953, Royal Opera House, London||B&H|
|The Turn of the Screw||Op. 54||Opera in a prologue and two acts, 101'||Myfanwy Piper, after the novella by Henry James||14 September 1954, Teatro La Fenice, Venice||B&H|
|Noye's Fludde||Op. 59||Music-theatre for community performance, 50'||After the Chester Miracle Play||18 June 1958, Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival||B&H|
|A Midsummer Night's Dream||Op. 64||Opera in three acts, 144'||the composer and Peter Pears, after the play by Shakespeare||11 June 1960, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Festival||B&H|
|Owen Wingrave||Op. 85||Opera for television in two acts, 106'||Myfanwy Piper, after the short story by Henry James||16 May 1971, BBC2 TV broadcast; 10 May 1973, Royal Opera House, London (staged)||Faber|
|Death in Venice||Op. 88||Opera in two acts, 145'||Myfanwy Piper, after the short story by Thomas Mann||16 June 1973, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival||Faber|
Britten was an accomplished pianist, frequently performing chamber music and accompanying lieder and song recitals. However, apart from the Holiday Diary (1934), Piano Concerto (1938), Young Apollo (1939), Diversions (written for Paul Wittgenstein in 1940), Scottish Ballad (1941), he wrote relatively little music that puts the piano in the spotlight, and in a 1963 interview for the BBC said that he thought of it as "a background instrument".
One of Britten's best known works is The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Its subtitle is Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell; the theme is a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazer. Britten gives individual variations to each of the sections of the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. The original film's spoken commentary is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.
Britten's church music is also considerable: it contains frequently performed 'classics' such as Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for St Matthew's Northampton (where the Vicar was Revd Walter Hussey), as well as A Hymn to the Virgin, and Missa Brevis for boys' voices and organ.
As a conductor, Britten performed the music of many composers, as well as his own. Among his celebrated recordings are versions of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 40th Symphony and Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius (with Pears as Gerontius), and an album of works by Grainger in which Britten features both as pianist and a conductor.
Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar (1963) has an important place in the repertoire of its instrument. This work is typically spare in his late style, and shows the depth of his lifelong admiration for Elizabethan lute songs. In each of the eight variations Britten focuses on a different feature of the work's theme, Dowland's song Come, Heavy Sleep, or its lute accompaniment, before the theme emerges complete at the close of the work.
In 2005, the Britten-Pears Foundation, in partnership with the University of East Anglia, was awarded funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to produce a thematic catalogue of Britten's works. The project is distinguished by being the first composer thematic catalogue to be published initially online. (All previous thematic catalogues have been print publications, though some have been published online later.) The work involves gathering and cataloguing manuscript and published notation and published recordings, producing a chronology, and assigning identifiers to Britten's works. These identifiers are in addition to Britten's own opus numbers and, after the style of preceding thematic catalogues such as BWV for J.S. Bach, comprise the letters 'BTC' followed by numbers assigned in chronological order. The catalogue includes numerous unpublished works and is expected, when completed in 2013, to include around 1,200 works. (Britten's published output includes around two hundred works, of which ninety-five works were assigned opus numbers.)
Early in his career, Britten made a conscious effort to set himself apart from the English musical mainstream, which he regarded as complacent, insular and amateurish. Many contemporary critics distrusted his facility, cosmopolitanism and admiration for composers such as Mahler, Berg, and Stravinsky, who were not at the time considered appropriate models for a young English musician. Britten's status as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century is now secure among professional critics. However, criticism of his music is apt to become entangled with consideration of his personality, his politics (especially his pacifism in World War II) and his sexuality. Humphrey Carpenter's 1992 biography further described Britten's often fraught social, professional and sexual relationships, as did Alan Bennett's 2009 play The Habit of Art, set while Britten is composing the opera Death in Venice and centred on a fictional meeting between Britten and W. H. Auden (Britten was played in the premiere production by Alex Jennings).
In 2003, a selection of Britten's writings, edited by Paul Kildea, revealed other ways that he addressed such issues as his pacifism. A further study along the lines begun by Carpenter is John Bridcut's Britten's Children (2006), which describes Britten’s infatuation with a series of pre-adolescent and adolescent boys throughout his life, most notably David Hemmings.
For many musicians Britten's technique, broad musical and human sympathies and ability to treat the most traditional of musical forms with freshness and originality place him at the head of composers of his generation. A notable tribute is Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, an orchestral piece written in 1977 by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
- UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers 1961, (for A Midsummer Night's Dream)
- Grammy Awards 1963 – Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Composition by a Contemporary Composer, Best Classical Performance – Choral (Other Than Opera) (all for War Requiem)
- Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal, 1964
- Sonning Award 1967 (Denmark)
- Ernst von Siemens Music Prize 1974
- BRIT Awards 1977 – Best Orchestral Album (of the past 25 years) (for War Requiem)
- Grammy Hall of Fame Award 1998 (for War Requiem)
Recordings by Britten
- Facets of Benjamin Britten Pearl, Pavilion Records ( 0220 GEM)
- Benjamin Britten – Premiere recordings 1938–46 Pearl, Pavilion Records ( 0002 GEM)
- Britten the Performer (BBC Legends Music)
- Benjamin Britten: In Rehearsal and Performance with Peter Pears