Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh
Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh
Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh, outstanding English composer; b. Lowestoft, Suffolk, Nov. 22, 1913; d. Aldeburgh, Dec. 4, 1976. He grew up in moderately prosperous circumstances; his father was an orthodontist, his mother an amateur singer. He played the piano and improvised facile tunes; many years later he used these youthful inspirations in a symphonic work which he named Simple Symphony. In addition to piano, he began taking viola lessons with Audrey Alston. At the age of 13, he was accepted as a pupil in composition by Frank Bridge, whose influence was decisive on Britten’s development as a composer. In 1930 he entered the Royal Coll. of Music in London, where he studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Harold Samuel, and composition with John Ireland until 1933. He progressed rapidly; even his earliest works showed a mature mastery of technique and a fine talent for lyrical expression. His Fantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings was performed at the Festival of the ISCM in Florence on April 5, 1934. He became associated with the theater and the cinema and began composing background music for films. In 1936 he met Peter Pears. From 1937 they appeared in joint recitals, remaining intimate as well as professional companions until Britten’s death. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Britten went to the U.S.; he returned to England in the spring of 1942; was exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. After the War, he organized the English Opera Group (1947), and in 1948 the Aldeburgh Festival, in collaboration with Eric Crozier and Pears; this Festival became an important cultural institution in England, serving as the venue for the first performances of many of Britten’s own works, often under his direction; he also had productions at the Glyndebourne Festival. In his operas, he observed the economic necessity of reducing the orch. contingent to 12 performers, with the piano part serving as a modern version of the Baroque ripieno. This economy of means made it possible for small opera groups and univ. workshops to perform Britten’s works; yet he succeeded in creating a rich spectrum of instrumental colors, in an idiom ranging from simple triadic progressions, often in parallel motion, to ultrachromatic dissonant harmonies; on occasion he applied dodecaphonic procedures, with thematic materials based on 12 different notes; however, he never employed the formal design of the 12-tone method of composition. A sui generis dodecaphonic device is illustrated by the modulatory scheme in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, in which each successive scene begins in a different key, with the totality of tonics aggregating to a series of 12 different notes. A characteristic feature in his operas is the inclusion of orch. interludes, which become independent symphonic poems in an impressionistic vein related to the dramatic action of the work. The cries of seagulls in Britten’s most popular and musically most striking opera, Peter Grimes, create a fantastic quasi-surrealistic imagery. Britten was equally successful in treating tragic subjects, as in Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, comic subjects, exemplified by his Albert Herring, and mystical evocation, as in his The Turn of the Screw. He was also successful in depicting patriotic subjects, as in Gloriana, composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He possessed a flair for writing music for children, in which he managed to present a degree of sophistication and artistic simplicity without condescension. In short, Britten was an adaptable composer who could perform a given task according to the specific requirements of the occasion. He composed a “realization” of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. He also wrote modern “parables” for church performance, and produced a contemporary counterpart of the medieval English miracle play Noye’s Fludde. Among his other works is the remarkable War Requiem, a profound tribute to the dead of many wars. In 1952 Britten was made a Companion of Honour, in 1965 he received the Order of Merit, and in 1976 he became the first English composer to be created a life peer, becoming Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. In collaboration with Imogen Hoist, Britten wrote The Story of Music (London, 1958) and The Wonderful World of Music (Garden City, N.Y., 1968; rev. ed., 1970).
opera:Paul Bunyan (N.Y., May 5, 1941; rev. 1974; BBC, Feb. 1, 1976; Aldeburgh, June 14, 1976); Peter Grimes (London, June 7, 1945); The Rape ofLucretia (Glyndebourne, July
12, 1946); Albert Herring (Glyndebourne, June 20, 1947, composer conducting); The Beggar’s Opera, a realization of the ballad opera by John Gay (Cambridge, May 24, 1948, composer conducting); The Little Sweep, or Let’s Make an Opera, “an entertainment for young people” with optional audience participation (Aldeburgh, June 14, 1949); Billy Budd (1st version in 4 acts; London, Dec. 1, 1951, composer conducting; rev. version in 2 acts, 1960; BBC, Nov. 13, 1960); Gloriana (London, June 8, 1953); The Turn of the Screw, chamber opera (Venice, Sept. 14, 1954, composer conducting); Noye’s Fludde, children’s opera (Aldeburgh, June 18, 1958); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Aldeburgh, June 11, 1960, composer conducting); Curlew River, church parable (Aldeburgh, June 12, 1964, composer conducting); The Burning Fiery Furnace, church parable (Aldeburgh, June 9, 1966, composer conducting); The Prodigal Son, church parable (Aldeburgh, June 10, 1968, composer conducting); Owen Wingrave (BBC-TV, May 16, 1971, composer conducting; stage premiere, London, May 10, 1973); Death in Venice (Aldeburgh, June 16, 1973); 2 realizations of operas by Purcell: Dido and Aeneas (London, May 1, 1951, composer conducting) and The Fairy Queen, a shortened version for concert perf. (Aldeburgh, June 25, 1967); a ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas (London, Jan. 1, 1957, composer conducting). orch.:Sinfonietta (1932; London, Jan. 31, 1933); Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Chamber Orch. (1932); Simple Symphony (Norwich, March 6, 1934, composer conducting); Soirées musicales, suite from Rossini (1936); Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for Strings (Salzburg, Aug. 27, 1937); Mont Juic, suite of Catalan dances (1937; BBC, Jan. 8, 1938; in collaboration with L. Berkeley); Piano Concerto (London, Aug. 18, 1938; rev. 1945; with an added 3rd movement, Cheltenham, July 2, 1946); Violin Concerto (1939; N.Y., March 28, 1940); Young Apollo for Piano, String Quartet, and Strings (Toronto, Aug. 27, 1939); Canadian Carnival (1939; BBC, June 6, 1940); Sinfonia da Requiem (1940; N.Y., March 29, 1941); An American Overture (1942); Diversions for Piano, Left-Hand, and Orch. (1940; Philadelphia, Jan. 16, 1942; rev. 1954); Matinées musicales, suite from Rossini (1941); Scottish Ballad for 2 Pianos and Orch. (Cincinnati, Nov. 28, 1941); Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings (London, June 23, 1943); 4 Sea Interludes, from Peter Grimes (Cheltenham, June 13, 1945); The Young Person’s Guide to the Orch., variations and fugue on a theme of Purcell (Liverpool, Oct. 15, 1946); Symphonic Suite from Gloriana (Birmingham, Sept. 23, 1954); Pas de six from The Prince of the Pagodas (Birmingham, Sept. 26, 1957); Cello Symphony (1963; Moscow, March 12, 1964, Rostropovich soloist, composer conducting); The Building of the House, overture for the opening of the Makings concert hall (Aldeburgh, June 2, 1967, composer conducting); Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974; Aldeburgh, June 13, 1975); Lachrymae, Reflections on a Song of John Dowland for Viola and Strings (1976; Recklinghausen, May 3, 1977). chamber:Quartettino for String Quartet (1930; London, May 23, 1983); 1 unnumbered string quartet (1931; rev. 1974; Aldeburgh, June 7, 1975); 3 numbered string quartets: No. 1 (Los Angeles, Sept. 21, 1941), No. 2 (London, Nov. 21, 1945), and No. 3 (1975; Aldeburgh, Dec. 19, 1975); Phantasy in F minor for String Quintet (July 22, 1932); Phantasy for Oboe and String Trio (1932; Florence, April 5, 1934); Suite for Violin and Piano (1935; London, Jan. 27, 1936); 2 Insect Pieces for Oboe and Piano (1935; Manchester, March 7, 1979); 3 Divertimenti for String Quartet (London, Feb. 25, 1936); Temporal Variations for Oboe and Piano (London, Dec. 15, 1936); Lachrymae, Reflections on a Song of John Dowland for Viola and Piano (Aldeburgh, June 20, 1950); 6 Metamorphoses for Oboe (Thorpress, June 14, 1951); Alpine Suite for 3 Recorders (1955); Cello Sonata (Aldeburgh, July 7, 1961); Nocturnal for Guitar (1963; Aldeburgh, June 12, 1964); 3 Suites for Cello: No. 1 (1964; Aldeburgh, June 27, 1965), No. 2 (1967; Aldeburgh, June 17, 1968), and No. 3 (1971; Aldeburgh, Dec. 21, 1974); Gemini Variations for Flute, Violin, and Piano, 4-Hands (Aldeburgh, June 19, 1965); Suite for Harp (Aldeburgh, June 24, 1969). piano: 5 waltzes (1923-25; rev. 1969); Holiday Diary, suite (1934); Sonatina romantica (1940; Aldeburgh, June 16, 1983). vocal:A Hymn to the Virgin, anthem for Mixed Voices (1930; Lowestoft, Jan. 5, 1931); A Boy Was Born, choral variations (1933; BBC, Feb. 23, 1934; rev. 1955); Friday Afternoons for Children’s Voices (1935); Te Deum in C (1935; London, Jan. 27, 1936); Our Hunting Fathers, symphonic cycle for High Voice and Orch. (Norwich, Sept. 25, 1936, composer conducting); On This Island,
5 songs, after Auden (BBC, London, Nov. 19, 1937); 4 Cabaret Songs, after Auden (1937–39); Ballad of Heroes for High Voice, Chorus, and Orch. (London, April 5, 1939); Les Illuminations for High Voice and Strings, after Rimbaud (1939; London, Jan. 30, 1940); 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo for Tenor and Piano (1940; London, Sept. 23, 1942); Hymn to St. Cecilia for Chorus (London, Nov. 22, 1942); A Ceremony of Carols for Treble Voices and Harp (Norwich, Dec. 5, 1942); Rejoice in the Lamb for Chorus, Soloists, and Organ (Northampton, Sept. 21, 1943); Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings (London, Oct. 15, 1943); Festival Te Deum (1944; Swindon, April 24, 1945); The Holy Sonnets of John Donne for High Voice and Piano (London, Nov. 22, 1945); Canticle I, “My Beloved Is Mine” for High Voice and Piano (Aldeburgh, Nov. 1, 1947); A Charm of Lullabies for Mezzo-soprano and Piano (1947; The Hague, Jan. 3, 1948; orchestrated by Colin Matthews; Indianapolis, Jan. 17, 1991, Forrester soloist, Leppard conducting); Saint Nicolas, cantata (Aldeburgh, June 5, 1948); Spring Symphony for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (Amsterdam, July 9, 1949); 5 Flower Songs for Chorus (Dartington, South Devon, April 3, 1950); Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac (Nottingham, Jan. 21, 1952); Choral Dances from Gloriana (1953); Winter Words for High Voice and Piano, after Thomas Hardy (Harewood House, Leeds, Oct. 8, 1953); Canticle III, Still Falls the Rain, for Tenor, Horn, and Piano, after Edith Sitwell (London, Jan. 28, 1955); Songs from the Chinese for High Voice and Guitar (1957; Aldeburgh, June 17, 1958); Nocturne for Tenor, Obbligato Instruments, and Strings, after English poems (Leeds, Oct. 16, 1958); 6 Holderlin Fragments for Voice and Piano (Schloss Wolfsgarten, Nov. 20, 1958); Cantata accademica for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1959; Basel, July 1, 1960); Missa Brevis in D for Boy’s Voices and Organ (London, July 22, 1959); War Requiem for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch., after the Latin Requiem Mass and Wilfred Owen (Coventry, May 30, 1962, composer conducting); Cantata Misericordium for Soloists, Small Chorus, and Orch. (Geneva, Sept. 1, 1963); Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for Baritone and Piano (Aldeburgh, June 24, 1965); Voices for Today, anthem for Chorus (triple premiere, N.Y., Paris, and London, Oct. 24, 1965); The Poet’s Echo for High Voice and Piano, after Pushkin (Moscow, Dec. 2, 1965); The Golden Vanity, vaudeville for Boy’s Voices and Piano (1966; Aldeburgh, June 3, 1967); Children’s Crusade, ballad for Children’s Voices and Orch., after Brecht (1968; London, May 19, 1969); Who Are These Children?, song cycle for Tenor and Piano (1969; Edinburgh, May 4, 1971); Canticle IV, Journey of the Magi for Tenor, Countertenor, Baritone, and Piano, after T.S. Eliot (Aldeburgh, June 26, 1971); Canticle V, The Death of St. Narcissus for Tenor and Harp, after T.S. Eliot (1974; Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, Jan. 15, 1975); Sacred and Profane, 8 medieval lyrics for Chorus (Aldeburgh, Sept. 14, 1975); A Birthday Hansel for Voice and Harp, after Robert Burns (1975; Cardiff, March 19, 1976); Phaedra, cantata for Mezzo-soprano and Chamber Orch. (1975; Aldeburgh, June 16, 1976); Welcome Ode for Children’s Chorus and Orch. (1976; Ipswich, July 11, 1977); 8 British Folksongs arranged for Voice and Orch.; 6 French Folksongs arranged for Voice and Orch.; 6 vols, of British folk-song arrangements, with Piano Accompaniment (1943–61); realizations of Purcell’s Orpheus Brittanicus, with Peter Pears; 4 chansons françaises for High Voice and Orch. (1928; first perf. in concert form at Aldeburgh, June 10, 1980).
E. White, B. B.(London, 1948; 3rd ed., rev., 1983); D. Mitchell and H. Keller, eds., B. B.: A Commentary of His Works from a Group of Specialists (London, 1952); Tribute to B. B. on His 50th Birthday (London, 1963); I. Hoist, B.(London, 1966; rev. ed., 1970); M. Hurd, B. B.(London, 1966); P. Young, B.(London, 1966); P. Howard, The Operas ofB. B.(N.Y., 1969); A. Kendall, B. B.(London, 1973); D. Mitchell, B. B., 1913-1976; A Pictorial Biography (N.Y., 1978); P. Evans, The Music of B. B.(London, 1979); D. Herbert, ed., The Operas of B. B.(London, 1979); A. Blyth, Remembering B.(London, 1981); R. Duncan, Working with B.: A Personal Memoir (Welcombe, Devon, 1981); C. Headington, B. (London, 1981); M. Kennedy, B. (London, 1981; rev. ed., 1993); A. Whittall, The Music of B. and Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques (Cambridge, 1982; 2nd ed., 1990); P. Brett, Peter Grimes (Cambridge, 1983); C. Palmer, ed., The B. Companion (London, 1984); B. Britten, My Brother B.(Bourne End, 1987); S. Corse, Opera and the Uses of Language: Mozart, Verdi, and B.(London and Toronto, 1987); J. Evans, P. Reed, and P. Wilson, eds., A B. Source Book (Aldeburgh, 1987); D. Mitchell, B. B.: Death in Venice (Cambridge, 1987); P. Reed, The Incidental Music ofB. B.: A Study and Catalogue of His Music for Film, Theatre and Radio (diss., Univ. of East Anglia, 1988); D. Mitchell and P. Reed, eds., Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries ofB. B.(2 vols., Berkeley, 1991); H. Carpenter, B. B.: A Biography (London, 1992); P. Banks, ed., B.’s ’Gloriana’: Essays and Sources (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1993); M. Cook and P. Reed, eds., B. B.: Billy Budd (Cambridge, 1993); M. Saremba, Elgar, B. & Co.: Eine Geschichte der britischen Musik in zwòlf Portraits (Zurich, 1994); P. Banks, ed., The Making of Peter Grimes: The Facsimile of B.’s Composition Draft: Studies (2 vols., Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1995); W. Godsalve, B.’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Making an Opera from Shakespeare’s Comedy (Madison, N.J., 1995); C. Mark, Early B. B.: A Study of Stylistic and Technical Evolution (Hamden, Conn., 1995); P. Reed, ed., On Mahler and B.: Essays in Honour of Donald Mitchell on his Seventieth Birthday (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1995); M. Cooke, B.: War Requiem (Cambridge, 1996); X. de Gaulle, B. B., ou, L’impossible quiétude (Aries, 1996); P. Hodgson, B. B.: A Guide to Research (N.Y., 1996); M. Wilcox, B. B.’s Operas (Bath, 1997); M. Cooke, B. and the Far East: Asian Influences in the Music of B. B. (Woodbridge, 1998).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire