Britten, Benjamin (1913–1976)

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English composer.

Benjamin Britten was the most prominent and prolific English composer of the mid-twentieth century. He was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, to a middle-class family. His childhood was infused with music, and he began to compose at an astonishingly early age; some say from the age of five, others from age nine. In 1927 the composer Frank Bridge started to teach him privately. Bridge introduced him to modern tendencies, from Béla Bartók to Arnold Schoenberg; Britten entered the Royal College of Music in London in 1930, studying piano with Arthur Benjamin and composition with John Ireland. His time in the Royal College was not particularly fruitful, partly because of the dislike of "brilliance," or expressive composition, voiced by Ralph Vaughan Williams, then professor of music. Britten's formation as a musician and composer continued despite, rather than because of, his training in the Royal College. In 1933 he completed A Boy Was Born, a choral work performed by the BBC Singers. In 1935 he began composing music for documentary films produced by the General Post Office. The documentary movement of these years was a way people with socialist opinions such as Britten could reach out to popular culture and entertainment.

During this period Britten met the tenor Peter Pears, who became his lifelong companion. They gave their first recital together at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1937, as part of a campaign for the relief of victims of the Spanish civil war. At this time Britten worked for BBC Radio and a number of theater groups in London. In this milieu he began to collaborate with the poet W. H. Auden, who wrote lyrics for some of Britten's songs.

When war became unavoidable in 1939, Britten—a conscientious objector—and Pears left Britain for the United States. Auden too had migrated, and together they collaborated on the operetta Paul Bunyan (1941), about the American folk figure. Visiting California, Britten read some work by E. M. Forster on the English poet George Crabbe. From this engagement with Crabbe came Peter Grimes, Britten's first full opera, completed after Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942. During the war he produced many sacred works, including Hymn to St. Cecilia (based on Auden's poetry), A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, and the Festival Te Deum. In 1945 Peter Grimes was first performed by the reopened Sadler's Wells Opera in London and received its American premiere a year later at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein. The tenor role of Peter Grimes was written with and for Peter Pears.

During the postwar decade Britten worked on a variety of operas: The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), and The Turn of the Screw (1954). He was commissioned to write the music for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, rebuilt in 1962 by Sir Basil Spence. Britten's War Requiem, first performed on 30 May 1962, matching his personal style of shattering lyrical power with the war poetry of World War I, required ambulant choirs engaged in antiphonal and echoing responses. In the space of the new cathedral, at right angles to the ruins of the medieval church, Britten found a way to express his personal pacifist views. He had been a conscientious objector during World War II. But he also found a form for the expression in sacred music of English national feeling in the aftermath of the two world wars. Just as T. S. Eliot found a language of Englishness in the Four Quartets to express the harsh struggle between the Nazis and a civilization then termed "Christian," so Britten fashioned in his War Requiem a musical icon for the century of total war.

Britten's contribution to modern English music is without parallel. He expanded the repertoire of dramatic and operatic music, drawing from medieval tropes as well as from the cadences of Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich (a personal friend), and other modernists. He edited with Pears substantial editions of medieval English vocal music. Britten's legacy is most evident in the Aldeburgh Festival, which he helped found in 1948. It became both a home for their touring opera company, the English Opera Group, and a center for new music and new composers, whose work is performed there every summer. Britten is buried in the parish church of Aldeburgh, alongside Peter Pears, who died in 1986.

See alsoAuden, W. H.; Opera; Schoenberg, Arnold; Shostakovich, Dmitri.


Blyth, Alan. Remembering Britten. London, 1981.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. New York, 1992.

Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. Minneapolis, Minn., 1979.

Kennedy, Michael. Britten. London, 1981.

Mitchell, Donald. Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936. London, 1981.

Palmer, Christopher, ed. The Britten Companion. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1984.

Jay Winter

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Britten, Benjamin (1913–1976)

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