Benjamin Britten is often described as the most important British composer since Henry Purcell (1659–95)
Britten’s work spans a diverse range of musical genres, from operas and string quartets to film music and solo songs. Instantly recognisable, his music is imbued with the spirit of his time and place, yet transcends cultural and geographical boundaries.
Britten was born on 22 November 1913 in the town of Lowestoft in Suffolk. He was taught the piano and viola, and started to write music at the age of five. Immensely prolific as a child, he produced some 800 distinct juvenile works before the age of 18. One of his earliest influences was the music of Frank Bridge, whose orchestral work The Sea created a lasting impression when Britten first heard it aged 11. A few years later he met Bridge and began to take composition lessons with him in the school holidays. Although Britten later studied composition with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music, Bridge was the key influence on his early musical development, a debt acknowledged in his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937). Even before he left the College in 1933, Britten’s music was beginning to be heard in the concert hall and on the radio. The Sinfonietta for string orchestra, for example, was first performed in 1933 and designated as his Op. 1.
In 1934 Britten met the tenor Peter Pears (1910-86), who inspired much of his music and with whom he formed a life-long relationship. The following year he also met the poet W H Auden (1907–73), who would become a major influence. Their most famous collaboration was the General Post Office film Night Mail (1936). Britten also provided music for Auden’s Our Hunting Fathers, a radical cycle of songs about man’s inhumanity to man, and for The Ascent of F6, a play by Auden and Christopher Isherwood. This featured the song ‘Funeral Blues’, which, with its opening words ‘Stop all the clocks’, later became famous as a poem. Auden and Isherwood travelled to the USA shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and Britten followed soon afterwards with Pears.
Britten and Pears returned to the UK in 1942, registering as conscientious objectors, and set up home in Suffolk. The first performance of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes at Sadler’s Wells on 7 June 1945 is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of opera in Britain, and cemented Britten’s international reputation. Also premiered in 1945, the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra reflected Britten’s abiding concern for writing music accessible to young people. In 1948, Britten and Pears established the annual Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, where many of Britten’s works were first performed. In a series of church parables, beginning with Curlew River (1964), Britten fuses medieval plainchant with an approach to music and drama strong influenced by the stylised simplicity Japanese Noh theatre. Britten’s pacifist beliefs found powerful expression in the War Requiem, which was first performed on 30 May 1962 to mark the opening of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral.
Following the success of Peter Grimes, Britten devoted much of his creative energies to composing opera. Works such as Billy Budd (1951), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) and Death in Venice (1973) are now well established in the repertories of major opera houses worldwide. He was awarded a life peerage shortly before his death, aged 63, on 4 December 1976. The British Library holds a substantial collection of Britten’s autograph scores, many of which are placed on long-term loan at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh.
Further information about the life of Benjamin Britten can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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Music formed an important component of the propaganda and educational films produced during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. In this article, Nicholas Clark explores the film scores composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten between 1940 and 1948.