Benjamin Britten


Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the 22 November 1913, the feast day of Cecilia, patron saint of music. His mother Edith was an enthusiastic amateur pianist and singer and although she encouraged all of her children (Britten had three siblings) to play the piano it was Benjamin whom she regarded as specially gifted. He was educated in Lowestoft and at Gresham’s School at Holt, Norfolk. Formal music lesson began with the piano at five and the viola at the age of 10. His viola teacher Audrey Alston arranged for him to meet with the composer Frank Bridge whose orchestral suite The Sea had by Britten’s own admission ‘knocked [him] sideways’. He had by this time already written a large volume of music but these important lessons influenced the way he was to view his output and he learnt to become more critical of his work. Between the ages of five and 18 he composed well over 750 individual pieces, including songs, chamber music and full scale orchestral works, which he kept and occasionally revised throughout his life. 

Britten entered the Royal College of Music, having won an open scholarship in 1930, where his teachers included John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin and it was here that he produced his Opus 1, the Sinfonietta for small orchestra. This was dedicated to Bridge but a more stated acknowledgement of his gratitude appeared later with his work for string orchestra, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (op. 10), premiered by the Boyd Neel Orchestra in the Netherlands in 1937. On graduation Britten supported himself by writing music for theatre, radio and film, working with people such as poet W.H. Auden who produced the texts for GPO (General Post Office) film documentaries such as Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). 

Britten met the tenor Peter Pears (b. 1910) during the mid-1930s (neither one could recall exactly when) and this was the beginning of a lifelong personal and professional partnership. They travelled together to the United States in 1939 to explore new opportunities in their careers, but eventually homesick and with a desire to begin work once again in Suffolk on a new opera commissioned by the Russian-born American conductor Serge Koussevitsky Britten returned to England three years later at the height of the Second World War. Both he and Pears were ardent pacifists and believed that they could best serve their fellow human being at this troubled time through their music. They registered as Conscientious Objectors, taking work for CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) which involved much touring, bringing music to various parts of the war-torn country. Pears also became Britten’s principal source of inspiration: song cycles including the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (op. 22, 1940), the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (op. 31, 1943) and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (op. 35, 1945), the Thomas Hardy settings Winter Words (op. 52, 1953) and Nocturne (op. 60, 1958) were all composed very much with his voice in mind: he premiered the Michelangelo and Donne sonnets and Hardy poems with Britten accompanying him at the piano and these works received multiple performances during their many recitals together. Pears also introduced audiences to many of Britten’s major operatic roles, beginning in 1945 with Peter Grimes (op.33), the opera Koussevitsky had commissioned, and the first work staged at Sadler’s Wells theatre following the end of the War. Grimes ushered a resurgence in interest and enthusiasm for opera in English and proved to be a great success. It was based on part of a poem by the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe and focused on a community whose lives and attitudes were shaped by the sometimes brutal east coast. The following year Britten and Pears helped form a new opera company, originally based at Glyndebourne. His first two works for the company were the chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia (op. 37, 1946) which retold the classical story of Lucretia and Tarquinius and featured Kathleen Ferrier in the title role and Albert Herring (op. 39, 1947) a humorous retelling of a short story by Guy de Maupassant reset in Suffolk. Although both operas were first staged at Glyndebourne the company, now known as The English Opera Group, worked independently and it was for them that Britten wrote almost all remaining operatic works. 

Although most of his film work was confined to productions for the GPO and Crown Film Units Britten wrote the score for a film made for the Ministry of Education entitled ‘Instruments of the Orchestra’. A set of variations and fugue based on music from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for the play Abdelazar, or the Moor’s Revenge, it became a concert piece in its own right, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (op. 34), possibly his most well-known and widely performed work. Britten’s prolific operatic output included the children’s opera The Little Sweep (op. 45, 1949) which is coupled with a play about putting a stage work together called Let’s Make an Opera. In 1951 he composed Billy Budd, after the story by Herman Melville, for the Festival of Britain. Gloriana (op. 53) was written in honour of the Queen’s coronation in 1953 and did not prove to be a critical success, although subsequent revivals of the work have renewed opinion. In 1954 he returned to the chamber opera format and composed The Turn of the Screw (op. 54), after the ghost story by Henry James, which was premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice in 1954. With its small cast of characters and orchestra of 13 players the opera recreates the mounting tension and suspense that is integral to James’s story, with Britten suggesting settings as diverse a peaceful summer’s evening and a disturbing, haunted house.    

Britten had by this time settled on the seafront of Aldeburgh on England’s east coast where in 1948, with Pears and Eric Crozier, he established the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. This annual event witnessed the first performances of many key Britten works such as the cantata Saint Nicolas (op. 42, 1948) commemorating the centenary of Pears’s old school Lancing College, Noye’s Fludde (op. 59, 1958) an opera for amateur and professional alike and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream composed to mark the refurbishment of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall in 1960. Many performances took place in the hall as well as in local churches in places such as Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham which gave the event a sense of local identity. Britten wished to bring music to his community and this he did by attracting many world renowned artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Dennis Brain, Maurice Gendron and George Malcolm. The operation expanded considerably and gradually a bigger concert venue was required house a large audience and a stage that could accommodate a full-sized symphony orchestra and chorus.. In 1967 Britten and his Festival committee oversaw the lease of a disused Maltings in Snape, which was converted by Arup Associates into a Concert Hall.  

Britten’s composition encompassed ballet, chamber works, symphony and concerto but his primary interest was in the voice. He wrote a great deal of music for vocal and choral performance and usually had particular musicians in mind when he was composing. A large number of song cycles for piano and orchestral accompaniment were written for Pears. Pears, but he also composed works the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Both of these singers, with Pears, formed the trio for whom the composer specifically wrote solo parts in his War Requiem (op. 66) of 1962, a work that decried the tragedy of war, which he regarded as one of his most important compositions. Britten also established close working relationships with instrumentalists Julian Bream, Osian Ellis and Mstislav Rostropovich, consequently enriching the repertoire for guitar, harp and cello respectively. War Requiem was written at The Red House, a large eighteenth-century farmhouse approximately a mile from the centre of Aldeburgh where Britten and Pears moved in 1957, and it was here and later at a cottage in Horham near the border between Norfolk and Suffolk that Britten continued to work for the rest of his life. Here he completed an operatic version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (op. 64), with libretto that he and Pears arranged from Shakespeare’s play, as well as three Parables for Church performance. Britten was commissioned by the BBC to compose an opera for television and he chose as his subject another ghost story by Henry James. Owen Wingrave (op. 85), the tale of a young man from a military family who struggles with their disapproval at his decision to renounce the life of a soldier, also had personal meaning for Britten. Recorded at the composer’s request at the Maltings it was first screened on BBC television on 16 May 1971. Amid the onslaught of ill health, brought on by a severe heart condition, he wrote his final opera Death in Venice (op. 88) with librettist Myfanwy Piper, with whom he had worked on both The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave. An adaptation of the novel by Thomas Mann, the opera premiered at the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival, and it contained the final principal role (that of Gustav von Aschenbach) he would write for Pears. During the next three years Britten completed a number of major pieces including A Time There Was… the orchestral Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974), A Birthday Hansel (a set of Burns songs written especially for the seventy-fifth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1975) and the cantata Phaedra (written for Janet Baker, and premiered at the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival). In June 1976 Britten was awarded a life peerage in recognition of his work as a musician, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk, but his waning health was by now taking its toll. He had been able to complete work on his third and final String Quartet, which was rehearsed privately for him by the Amadeus String Quartet in the Library at The Red House, but he did not live to see its premiere, which took place two weeks after his death on the 4 December 1976. Pears remained at The Red House. He continued his work as a singer and also as an administrator and teacher at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies at Snape which was formally opened in 1979. Pears died on 3 April 1986 and is buried beside Britten in Aldeburgh Parish Church yard. 

He had been the first interpreter of many of Britten’s song and major operatic roles but the composer had also found inspiration in literature, setting the work of some 500 poets throughout his life, and in the fiction and drama that influenced his choice of subject for stage works. Settings of English poetry in Serenade, Nocturne, Winter Words and Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (op. 74, 1965) as well as works in translation Songs form the Chinese (op. 58, 1957), Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (op. 61, 1958) and the songs of the Russian poet Pushkin The Poet’s Echo (op. 76, 1965) demonstrate a sound understanding of how verse can be interpreted, and appeal to the listener, through music. Britten was also inspired by the landscape and seascape in which he chose to live, once commenting that living in close proximity to water, the sea in particular, was essential to his creativity. Its effect can be heard most obviously in his music for Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but it is also discernable in Saint Nicolas, Noye’s Fludde  or even in the contrasting moods of instrumental works such as Diversions (op. 21), which he composed for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein in 1940. His music for voice remains central to the choral repertoire and his song cycles, realizations of Purcell and folksong arrangements often heard in concert recital. All of Britten’s operas, including the operetta Paul Bunyan (op. 17) written with Auden in 1941, have remained in the repertoire and are finding a growing international audience.  

Information provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation