Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

(22 November 1913, Lowestoft - 4 December 1976, Aldeburgh)

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh was a British composer, conductor and pianist, whose operas were considered the finest English operas since those of Henry Purcell in the 17th century.

He took his first piano and notation lessons from his mother, Edith Britten, who was a talented amateur musician and secretary of the Lowestoft Musical Society. When he was 5 years old he made his first attempts at composition, at the age of 7 he started taking piano lessons from Ethel Astle, and 3 years later began to play the viola under Audrey Alston. Benjamin was one of the last composers brought up on exclusively live music: his father refused to have a gramophone or, later, a radio in the house.

His first encounter with modern music was on 30 October 1924 in Norwich, during the triennial Norfolk and Norwich Festival where he heard Frank Bridge's orchestral poem The Sea, conducted by the composer. When he returned to Norwich for the next festival in 1927, his viola teacher, Audrey Alston introduced  Benjamin to Frank Bridge. Having been impressed by the boy, he invited the young boy to come to London to take lessons from him. Robert Britten, supported by Thomas Sewell, doubted the wisdom of pursuing a composing career; a compromise was agreed by which Benjamin would, as planned, go on to his public school the following year but would make regular day-trips to London to study composition with Bridge and piano with his colleague Harold Samuel.

The earliest substantial works Britten composed while studying with Bridge are the String Quartet in F, completed in April 1928, and the Quatre Chansons Françaises, a song-cycle for high voice and orchestra. Authorities differ on the extent of Bridge's influence on his pupil's technique. Humphrey Carpenter and Michael Oliver judge that Britten's abilities as an orchestrator were essentially self-taught; Donald Mitchell considers that Bridge had an important influence on the cycle.

In 1930 he won a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London. The examination board consisted of the composers John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams and the college's harmony and counterpoint teacher, S.P. Waddington. From 1930 to 1933, Britten studied composition with Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. He won the Sullivan Prize for composition, the Cobbett Prize for chamber music, and was twice winner of the Ernest Farrar Prize for composition. After frequenting concerts he got acquainted with the music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Mahler, which, along with Ireland, became important early influences.

Britten's first composition to attract wide attention was the Sinfonietta. Op. 1 (1932), composed in his period spent at RCM, and a set of choral variations under the name A Boy Was Born, composed 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 for the pupils of Clive House School, Prestatyn, where his brother was headmaster.

Upon graduation from the RCM, Britten obtained a position scoring documentaries (on prosaic themes like "Sorting Office") for the Royal Post Office film unit. Working on a tight budget, he learned how to extract the maximum variety of color and musical effectiveness from the smallest combinations of instruments, producing dozens of such scores from 1935 to 1938. He rapidly emerged as the most promising British composer of his generation and entered into collaborative relationships that exerted a profound influence upon his creative life. Among the most important of his professional associates were literary figures like W.H. Auden, and later, E.M. Forster. None, however, played as central a role in Britten's life as the tenor Peter Pears, who was Britten's closest intimate, both personally and professionally, from the late '30s to the composer's death. In 1937 his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (which was a tribute to his teacher), for string orchestra, won him international acclaim.

A steadfast pacifist, Britten (along with Pears) sailed to North America in April 1939, as war loomed over Europe. He spent 4 years (from 1939 to 1942) in Canada and then in the United States, where his first work for the stage, the operetta Paul Bunyan (1941; libretto by Auden), was performed. Another influence on Britten's style was the music of Aaron Copland, especially his latest works such as Billy the Kid and An outdoor Overture. In 1940 Britten composed Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first of many song cycles for Pears. Britten's orchestral works from this period include the Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem. Britten and Pears returned to England in April 1942. A commission by the Koussevitzky Foundation led to the composition of his operaPeter Grimes (1945; libretto by M. Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough), which placed Britten in the forefront of 20th-century composers of opera.

With the church parable Curlew River (1964), his conception of musical theater took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese Noh theater and English medieval religious drama. Two other church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’s Fludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester mystery plays.

His later operas include The Rape of Lucretia (1946); the comic Albert Herring (1947); Billy Budd (1951; after Herman Melville); Gloriana (1953; written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II); The Turn of the Screw (1954; after Henry James); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960); Owen Wingrave (television, 1971); and Death in Venice (1973; after Thomas Mann). Britten’s largest choral work is the War Requiem (1962) for choir and orchestra, based on the Latin requiem mass text and the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in World War I. Other choral works include the Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942; text by Auden), Ceremony of Carols (1942), Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), St. Nicolas (1948), Spring Symphony (1949), and Voices for Today (1965; written for the United Nations’ 20th anniversary).

Britten’s operas are admired for their skillful setting of English words and their orchestral interludes, as well as for their dramatic aptness and depth of psychological characterization. In chamber operas such as The Rape of Lucretia and the church parables, he proved that serious music theater could flourish outside the opera house. His continual willingness to experiment with modern musical styles, forms, and sonorities and with new theatrical environments proved extremely fruitful.

Britten was created Companion of Honor in 1953 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1965. In June 1976 he was created a life peer, the first musician or composer to be elevated to the peerage.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Benjamin Britten.