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.
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. 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. 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Peace Pledge Union, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member, but the work was not a success and soon withdrawn.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. 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 Noye's Fludde, The Prince of the Pagodas and Death in Venice.
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.
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.
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. 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.)
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. 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. 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, 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.