Benjamin Britten: Wikis


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Benjamin Britten

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, violist and pianist.



Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the son of a dentist and a talented amateur musician. He showed musical gifts very early in life, and began composing prolifically as a child. He was educated at Old Buckenham Hall School in Suffolk, an all-boys prep school, and Gresham's School, Holt. In 1927, he began private lessons with Frank Bridge; he also studied, less happily, at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland, with some input from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although ultimately prevented by his parents (at the suggestion of College staff), Britten had also intended to study with Alban Berg in Vienna. Britten was a prolific juvenile composer; some 800 works and fragments precede his early published works. His first compositions to attract wide attention were the Sinfonietta Op. 1, A Hymn to the Virgin (1930) and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1934 for the BBC Singers.

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.[1] He 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.[2] They also collaborated on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers Op. 8, radical both in politics and musical treatment, and other works.

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Peace Pledge Union, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member, but the work was not a success and soon withdrawn.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.

In early 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. 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.[3] 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.[4] This musical encounter was to bear fruit decades later in several Balinese-inspired works including Noye's Fludde, The Prince of the Pagodas and Death in Venice.

Return to England

Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942, and both applied for recognition as conscientious objectors; Britten was initially refused recognition, but gained it on appeal. He 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. He had already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes based on the writings of Suffolk poet George Crabbe, and its première at Sadler's Wells in 1945 was his greatest success thus far. However, Britten encountered opposition from sectors of the English musical establishment and gradually withdrew from the London scene, founding the English Opera Group in 1947 and the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, partly (though by no means solely) to perform his own works.

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.

Britten was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in the Coronation Honours, 1953.[5]

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). The greatest success of Britten's career was, however, the War Requiem, written for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral.

Britten developed close friendships with Russian musicians Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1960s. He composed his Cello Suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Rostropovich, and conducted the first Western performance of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony. Shostakovich dedicated this score to Britten, and often spoke very highly of his music. Britten himself had previously 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.[6]

In his last decade or so, Britten suffered from increasingly poor health. His late works became progressively 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.

Having previously declined a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage on 2 July 1976 as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.[7] A few months later he died of heart failure at his house in Aldeburgh. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul's Church there. The grave of his partner, Sir Peter Pears lies next to his; near to the grave of Imogen Holst, a close friend.

The Red House in Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived and worked together for almost thirty years, is now the home of the Britten - Pears Foundation established to promote their musical legacy.


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 Abdelazar. 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 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 as pianist as well as conductor.

Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar (1963) has an indisputably central 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 200 works, of which 95 were assigned opus numbers.)


The Scallop by Maggi Hambling is a sculpture dedicated to Benjamin Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh. The edge of the shell is pierced with the words "I hear those voices that will not be drowned" from Peter Grimes.

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, not at the time considered appropriate models for a young English musician.

Britten's status as one of the greatest composers of the 20th 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.[8] 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 just after the premiere of Death in Venice and centred on a fictional meeting between Britten and WH 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.[9] 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.[10]

For many musicians, however, 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.


See also


  • F. Avellar de Aquino. "Song of Sorrow". in The Strad Magazine, London, v. 117, Vol. 1391, p. 52-57, 2006. (on Britten's 3rd. Cello Suite)
  • Philip Brett. "Benjamin Britten", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed October 18, 2004), (subscription access).
  • Britten, Benjamin (edited by Philip Reed, Mervyn Cooke and Donald Mitchell) Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Volume IV, 1952–1957 The Boydell Press, 633pp
  • Britten, Benjamin (edited by John Evans) Journeying Boy: the Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten, 1928-1938 (London: Faber and Faber), 2009
  • Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: a biography (London: Faber and Faber, 1992) ISBN 0-571-14324-5
  • Peter Evans. The Music of Benjamin Britten (London: Dent, 1979) ISBN 0-460-04350-1
  • Michael Kennedy, 1981. Britten (London: Dent, 1983) ISBN 0-460-02201-6
  • Donald Mitchell, "Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Baron Britten (1913–1976)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 18 October 2004:


  1. ^ Michael Kennedy (1981), p.16
  2. ^ Michael Kennedy (1981), p.17
  3. ^ See Peter Evans (1979), p.57
  4. ^ Michael Kennedy (1981), p. 31
  5. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 39863, p. 2976, 26 May 1953. Retrieved on 2008-07-16.
  6. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 43610, p. 3047, 26 March 1965. Retrieved on 2008-07-16.
  7. ^ London Gazette: no. 46954, p. 9295, 6 July 1976. Retrieved on 2008-07-16.
  8. ^ Hywel Williams, "The Puccini of Lowestoft", The Guardian, 5 December 2006.
  9. ^ Paul Kildea, "In his own words". The Guardian, 18 July 2003.
  10. ^ See Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed (eds.), Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, Faber and Faber, 1991; Humphrey Carpenter Benjamin Britten - a Biography, London. Faber and Faber, 1992; John Bridcut, Britten's Children, Faber and Faber, 2006.

External links


Simple English

Benjamin Britten (born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976) was probably the greatest English composer of his time. He came from East Anglia (a region in the south east of England) and he often thought about the East Anglian landscape and the sea when writing his music. He wrote a lot of music for his friend, the tenor Peter Pears. His operas include Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Death in Venice. His War Requiem was performed in Coventry Cathedral in 1962 after it had been rebuilt because the old cathedral had been destroyed in the war. He wrote music for children which sounds like proper, adult music. Britten started the Aldeburgh Festival. He was an excellent pianist and conductor.



Early years

Britten started composing music at the age of five although he had no one to help him. When he was ten years old he took part in an amateur music festival in Norwich. A composer called Frank Bridge heard him and was so impressed that he offered to teach him composition. He helped Britten to compose using proper musical techniques. Britten started to get to know music by a lot of important modern composers including Schoenberg and Bartók. In 1930 he went to the Royal College of Music. He had excellent piano teachers but he did not learn much from his composition teacher John Ireland and most of the music he wrote was never performed. Britten was more interested in music from abroad than in English music. In 1934 he heard the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg. He wanted to go to Austria to study with Berg but he was not allowed to. Meanwhile some of his first proper compositions started to be performed. He wrote some music for movies that were being made by the General Post Office, including one about a train delivering mail. The music describes the rhythm of the train rushing along.


While working on the movie music he met the writer W. H. Auden. He started to be interested in political ideas. These can be heard in some works he wrote at this time such as Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and Ballad of Heroes (1939). When Auden emigrated to the United States Britten followed him. With him was the tenor Peter Pears who was to become a lifelong friend and partner, and who was to be the inspiration for many songs and operas.

Britten wrote several compositions in the USA including Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) and his First String Quartet (1941). The following year he was reading about the poet John Crabbe who came from Suffolk, the same part of England where Britten had grown up. Britten suddenly became homesick. He realized that he could not work and be himself in a foreign country. So he returned with Pears to England.

Aldeburgh Festival

As soon as he was on the boat sailing back to England he started work on Ceremony of Carols. Back in England, Britten and Pears gave concerts to audiences of all kinds and took part in opera productions of Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, which was having a new theatre built. On the 7 June 1945 the new theatre was opened with a performance of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. This opera was to make Britten into the most famous English composer of his time. It was soon being performed abroad as well as in England.

Britten was now composing lots of music: songs, chamber music and a very popular piece called Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (also known as Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell). This piece shows off each instrument of the orchestra in turn so that young people can get to know the sound of the musical instruments. It is based on a tune written by Henry Purcell 300 years ago. There were more popular works: St Nicolas and the Spring Symphony. There were not many opportunities for big operas to be performed, so he wrote some “chamber operas” which only needed small orchestras and a small number of singers. These were performed in places such as local churches by a group which called themselves English Opera Group. He wrote The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947). In 1948 the group helped to start a music festival in Aldeburgh. Benjamin Britten spent the rest of his life mainly working on music which was to be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. He composed some of his greatest works for the festival, and he took part in the performances as conductor and pianist.

The 1950s

One of Britten’s most popular pieces of music for amateurs including children was Noye’s Fludde (1957). He wrote three “church parables”. His large operas include Billy Budd (1951) which was soon produced in Covent Garden. In June 1953 he wrote Gloriana, an opera about Queen Elizabeth I, written for the coronation celebrations of Elizabeth II. When he travelled with Peter Pears to the Far East he was influenced by the music of Bali and he composed a ballet called The Prince of the Pagodas, performed in Covent Garden in 1957. Another great work inspired by the East was the parable Curlew River (1964). The opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960. In 1962 he wrote the War Requiem to celebrate the new Coventry Cathedral. This is one of the greatest musical works of the 20th century.

His last years

In 1961 he became friends with the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. He composed a Cello Sonata and a Cello Symphony (1963) (a kind of cello concerto), as well as three suites for solo cello. He travelled with Pears to the Soviet Union.

In 1967 the Aldeburgh Festival had a new concert hall, the Maltings at Snape. His next opera was Owen Wingrave (1970)), written for television but soon produced in Covent Garden. In June 1973 Britten produced another great opera Death in Venice. The main character, called Aschenbach, was perhaps the best music he ever wrote for Peter Pears. It was performed at the Aldeburgh Festival, but Britten was ill by this time and unable to be at the performance. His heart condition made it impossible to work on any more large works, but he still wrote some harp music for the harpist Ossian Ellis, a song called Phaedra for Janet Baker, and a Third String Quartet. He died in Aldeburgh on 4 December 1976.

Britten received many honours both in Britain and in other countries. He became a Companion of Honour in 1952 a member of the Order of Merit in 1965 and, in the year he died, he was the first musician ever to receive a life peer (the title Lord Britten).

His music

Britten’s early works were often written for instruments. His Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) for string orchestra is a very popular work today. He often borrowed and reinvented themes by other composers (this is called “parody” technique). During his last years he again gave much attention to instrumental music, mainly chamber music.

After he met Peter Pears much of his music was vocal. This includes more than 100 songs, a number of operas, chamber operas as well as three works for tenor solo and orchestra: Les Illuminations, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and the Nocturne. His songs are often grouped in cycles. He also wrote many folksong settings. These were very popular as encore pieces when he accompanied Peter Pears in song recitals.

Britten wrote music for choirs, including Hymn to St Cecilia (Britten was proud of having been born on St Cecilia’s day: 22 November). The War Requiem is his greatest work which combines writing for choir and orchestra. It describes the horrors of war (Britten had refused to fight in World War II).

He wrote a lot of work for children. There are even parts for children in some of his grand operas, e.g. Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave. He even wrote an opera in which all the main parts are sung by children: The Little Sweep (1949).

Many of his great operatic roles, from Peter Grimes to Aschenbach in Death in Venice, deal with the theme of the outsider, the person who does not quite fit into society, or who is misunderstood. Britten’s gay character (which was something that was never discussed in his lifetime) may have something to do with this. He also knew what it was like to be an outsider when he tried to live in the United States, and his refusal to fight in the war may have distanced him from some people.

The Aldeburgh Festival at the Maltings in Snape (a village near Aldeburgh) continue to be a focus for Britten’s music. Every year the Brittens-Pears School of Music organizes lessons and performance opportunities for young musicians. A series of “Prom” concerts is held there every year in August.

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