Born Edward Benjamin Britten, November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, England; died December 4, 1976, in Aldeburgh, England; son of Robert (a dentist) and Edith Rhoda (an amateur singer) Britten. Education: Attended Royal College of Music, London, 1930.
Composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten was a giant of mid-twentieth-century British music. The creator of War Requiem, one of the most performed pieces of classical music, he wrote an important body of songs for amateurs and, perhaps most importantly, revived modern British opera. Britten's operas dealt with themes of compassion, individualism, and threatened innocence. He composed music "in a style noted for its melodic thrust, leanness, and characteristic sound," according to the Christian Science Monitor. Although casual listeners might identify his dissonant passages as modern, the New York Times observed that he "never embraced the more controversial musical fashions of his time."
The slim, curly-haired Britten was, according to Publishers Weekly, "at once gentle and cruel, shy and ruthless, sexually timid and fiercely loving, a good friend and a severe enemy." Born Edward Benjamin Britten on November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, England, he learned piano early and composed prolifically beginning at the age of five. When his parents brought him to England's Norwich Festival in 1924, he impressed composer Frank Bridge, who took him on as a pupil and encouraged him to look beyond Great Britain's borders to such continental composers as Bela Bartok and Arnold Schoenberg.
In the early 1930s Britten studied at the Royal College of Music. In 1935 he was hired by the British General Post Office to provide music for a series of documentary films. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, he had to satisfy the "highly particularized yet diverse demands" of film and in doing so he cultivated "the expressive immediacy and technical aptitude that were to distinguish his operatic work."
On the film set, Britten also met poet W. H. Auden, who was writing scripts. Britten and Auden became friends and decided to collaborate outside the studio. They launched into social and political commentary with the 1936 song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, and in 1939 they collaborated on the choral work Ballad of Heroes.
With the advent of World War II, Britten and a companion, tenor Peter Pears, traveled to Brooklyn, New York. Outside his native country, Britten freed himself from his musical inhibitions. He used text by the French poet Rimbaud to create the song cycle Les Illuminations, which the Washington Post called "one of his finest." He also set the sonnets of sixteenth-century Italian artist Michelangelo to music and in 1941 collaborated with librettist Auden on the opera Paul Bunyan.
After two years in the United States Britten began to miss his native country and in 1941 decided to go home. "I had become without roots," he recalled in his acceptance speech for his 1964 Aspen Award, as quoted in the Washington Post, "and when I got back to England ... I was ready to put them down." During the remainder of the war, Britten wrote music for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) broadcasts, gave concerts, and refined his command of setting British verse to music.
With the end of the war, Britten's career took off. On June 7, 1945, his opera Peter Grimes debuted at the Sadler's Wells Theater. Grimes was an immediate success, and it established Britten as a well-received music dramatist. Many critics were impressed by Britten but some pointed out his "dazzling technical facility [and dismissed] him as a clever but superficial artist," noted the New York Times.
Britten produced many compositions through the late 1940s. He set poet John Donne's sonnets to music and wrote a Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which the Washington Post called "witty," "ingenious," and "one of the most popular orchestral compositions of the 20th century." Britten also penned the St. Nicholas contata and produced his Spring Symphony.
Britten's operatic output, however, was limited by Great Britain's lack of support for that art form. His 1946 Rape of Lucretia and 1947 comedy Albert Herring had to be performed in concert with a small ensemble of singers. To remedy this situation and to promote modern British opera, Britten helped form the English Opera Group. In 1948 he and Pears moved from London back to his native region of East Anglia, where they founded the Aldeburgh Festival. The English Opera Group in effect became the house opera company at Aldeburgh, and Britten devoted much of the remainder of his life to writing music for Aldeburgh.
Throughout the 1950s Britten "was inspired by the art and voice of the remarkable English tenor, Peter Pears," according to the Washington Post. Concentrating on opera in 1951, Britten wrote Billy Budd for the Festival of Britain. When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, he presented Gloriana, a largely unsuccessful study of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1954 he offered the chamber opera The Turn of the Screw at the Venice Biennale and in 1960 created an operatic score for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
On May 30, 1962, Britten debuted his War Requiem at the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. The church had been bombed out during World War II and Britten conceived the Requiem as a great prayer for peace. For his text, he chose a mixture of the Latin Mass for the Dead and the poems of Wilfred Owen, a young English soldier who had been killed in World War I. The Requiem was an instant success with the British public and its appearance marked a second peak in Britten's public esteem.
Also in the early 1960s, Britten established a fruitful partnership with Russian cellist Mistislav Rostropovich. The two produced a cello symphony in 1963 and in 1965 completed a song cycle, The Poet's Echo, inspired by a group of poems by Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin. Turning in another direction toward the end of the decade, Britten wrote the quasi-operatic parables Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son, which grew out of his "dual fascination with Japanese classic drama and the rituals of medieval Christianity," according to the New York Times.
With the opening of a new larger concert hall at Aldeburgh in 1967, Britten's prowess as a conductor was further recognized. Despite his lack of enthusiasm about conducting, he "consistently touched an intangible" when leading orchestras, as noted in the Christian Science Monitor. Britten's extensive library of recordings, of both his own works and works by composers Elgar, Bach, Schubert, and Schumann, was called "one of the great treasuries of contemporary music" by the Washington Post.
Britten remained active into the early 1970s, producing Owen Wingrave, an opera for television, and Death in Venice, the only opera he wrote expressly for Aldeburgh. In 1973 he underwent extensive open heart surgery and never fully recovered. He died at his home in Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976.
by Jordan Wankoff
Benjamin Britten's Career
Wrote scores for documentary films, 1934-37; moved to U.S., 1939; returned to England, 1941, and worked for the propaganda division of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); founded English Opera Group and staged the Rape of Lucretia, 1946, Albert Herring, 1947, and a reworking of The Beggar's Opera, 1948; founded a music festival in Aldeburgh, 1948; composed opera for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953; staged the War Requiem, 1962; New York City's Metropolitan Opera performed Death in Venice, 1974.
Benjamin Britten's Awards
Companion of Honour, 1952; Aspen Award, 1964; New York Critics Circle award, 1964; Order of Merit, 1965; granted a life peerage by Queen Elizabeth II, 1976.
- Simple Symphony for Strings, 1934.
- (With W. H. Auden) Our Hunting Fathers, 1936.
- Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (string orchestra), 1937.
- Love from a Stranger (film score), 1937.
- Concerto in D for Piano and Orchestra, 1938.
- Les Illuminations (songs for soprano and strings), 1939.
- (With W. H. Auden) Ballad of Heroes, 1939.
- Sinfonia da Requiem for Orchestra, 1941.
- Hymn to St. Cecilia (choral work; text by W. H. Auden), 1942.
- Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, 1943.
- Rejoice in the Lamb (cantata), 1943.
- Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, 1943.
- The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (song cycle for tenor and piano), 1945.
- Peter Grimes (opera), 1945.
- Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, 1946.
- The Rape of Lucretia (opera), 1946.
- Albert Herring (opera), 1947.
- Missa Brevis in D, 1950.
- Metamorphoses (oboe), 1951.
- Gloriana (opera), 1953.
- The Turn of the Screw (opera), 1954.
- War Requiem (choirs, orchestra, chamber orchestra, and organ), 1962.
- Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, 1963.
- Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (songs for baritone and piano), 1965.
- Tit for Tat (songs based on the poems of Walter de la Mare), 1968.
- Owen Wingrave (television opera), 1970.
- Death in Venice (opera), 1973.
- Lachrymae (viola and piano), 1976.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, Scribners, 1993.
- Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Macmillan, 1980.
- Periodicals Christian Science Monitor, December 6, 1976.
- High Fidelity, September 1977.
- New York Times, December 5, 1976.
- Publishers Weekly, May 10, 1993.
- Village Voice, December 20, 1976.
- Washington Post, December 5, 1976.