Benjamin Britten

Composer Benjamin Britten

Twentieth-century English composer of opera and other works. Many of his operas have become standard repertory.

Vital Statistics
Lowestoft, Suffolk, Nov 22, 1913
Aldeburgh, Dec 4, 1976
20th Century
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
Both World Wars and the reconstruction of Europe that took place after the second.
Biographical Outline
  • Early years: Son of a dentist, his mother an amateur musician, Britten shows musical talent and begins composing at age five or six.
  • Higher education: Britten enters the Royal College of Music, London, on a composition scholarship in 1930, studies with the modernist composer Frank Bridge, and graduates in 1932. That year, his Opus 1 (Sinfonietta) attracts notice for the 19-year-old composer.
  • First gig, 1935: Britten composes film music for the General Post Office Film Unit, which made public-information documentaries. Here Britten meets several friends and collaborators, including W.H. Auden and Montagu Slater.
  • Love and art, 1937: Britten meets the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he forms an enduring artistic relationship. Shortly afterward, the pair become lovers and then life partners.
  • The war years, 1939-45: Due in part to Britten's pacifism, he and Pears travel to Canada and America. In 1942, Britten returns to England to work on his opera Peter Grimes, which premieres at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1945.
  • Opera and festival, 1946-50: The success of Peter Grimes brings Britten to the forefront of English composers. In 1947, he and his supporters found the English Opera Group, touring the composer's new operas, The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. He and Pears also plan a musical festival at Aldeburgh, a town on the English Channel coast where the pair settle. The annual festivals spur Britten's creativity and quickly become important to British music in general.
  • National composer, 1951-62: For the Festival of Britain, a national exhibition that promoted postwar recovery and redevelopment, Britten is commissioned to compose the opera Billy Budd (1951). For the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, he writes Gloriana (1953). In 1962, another important, commissioned work premieres: the War Requiem, written for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in WWII.
  • Change of pace, 1963-69: His 50th birthday celebrations are the high point of recognition for Britten as an "official" English composer. In the rest of the decade, he returns to instrumental music, works on smaller scale, more severe pieces, such as the "Church parable" operas, and travels with Pears.
  • Last works, 1970-76: Britten composes his last works, including the opera Death in Venice, the String Quartet No. 3, the dramatic cantata Phaedra, and three works for Peter Pears, the final notes in a remarkable string of works for the tenor. He dies of heart failure in Pears' arms.
Fun Facts
  • Youth focus: Britten was intensely interested in childhood and children. In his many works for children's voices, in his emphasis on that world, Britten developed a style that was distinctly more accessible than many composers of his era.
  • Accessibility: Noye's Fludde (Noah's Flood, 1957) is conceived for audience participation. It's one of a number of Britten's works, such as The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), that are educational and reach out to the larger community.
  • Eminent citizen: Britten was awarded the Order of Merit in 1965, a highly prestigious honor. Only 24 living British citizens may belong to the Order at any given time. Britten replaced T.S. Eliot, who died in 1965. Britten also held other dignities, including a Barony of the United Kingdom.
  • Antiwar politics: Britten was a staunch pacifist, and several of his works convey pacifist messages.
  • Symbolic soloists: The soloists for the 1962 premiere performance of War Requiem were the British tenor Peter Pears, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Their collaboration represented a reconciliation of opposing nationalities from WWII.
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Explore the Music
  • Britten composed across many genres, including opera, chamber music, symphonic music, religious works, and vocal music. He is perhaps most famous for his operas, especially Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, as well as for the War Requiem.
  • Peter Grimes (1945): Montagu Slater's libretto for this work is based upon a poem by George Crabbe, "The Borough." It is about a socially maladapted fisherman who commits suicide after the death of an apprentice, and questions the extent to which society's poor treatment of Grimes produces his harsh actions.
  • Billy Budd (1951): Based on the Herman Melville tale, this opera is about a handsome and naïve sailor who is falsely accused of mutiny, and who accidentally kills his accuser.
  • War Requiem (1962): The War Requiem combines choruses, soloists, chamber orchestra, and full orchestra. The work mixes the traditional Latin texts with poetry by Wilfred Owen, a British WWI soldier, homosexual, and pacifist, to convey a powerful pacifist message. Some consider the Requiem to be the highlight of Britten's output.
  • Although Britten used English musical and poetic sources in his music, he is well-known for decisively breaking with the more parochial English compositional traditions, and forging a style with international appeal.
  • Youthful industry: According to the Britten-Pears Foundation, there are about 750 works of juvenilia, many unfinished, written between 1919 and 1932, when Britten's Op. 1 was published.
  • A Britten catalogue of works is now in preparation that will include the composer's unpublished/ unfinished works and juvenilia. There are about 240 published works (with or without opus number). The catalogue will be published online, and is intended to be complete by 2013, the composer's centenary. More at this link, from the Britten-Pears Foundation.
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