Edward Benjamin Britten (November 22, 1913–December 4. 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist who was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, and wrote music in many genres. Britten was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, on the east coast of England, the youngest of the four children of Robert Victor Britten (1878–1934) and his wife Edith Rhoda, née Hockley (1874–1937). Edith Britten was a talented amateur musician and secretary of the Lowestoft Musical Society, and music was the principal means by which sge strove to maintain the family’s social standing, inviting the pillars of the local community to musical soirées at the house. When Britten was three months old he contracted pneumonia, from which he nearly died. The illness left him with a damaged heart. Doctors warned his parents that he would probably never be able to lead a normal life, but he recovered more fully than expected, and as a boy was a keen tennis player and cricketer.
To Edith Britten’s great delight Benjamin was an outstandingly musical child, unlike his sisters, who inherited their father’s indifference to music, or his brother, who was musically talented but interested in ragtime rather than serious music. Edith gave the young Britten his first lessons in piano and notation. He made his first attempts at composition when he was five. He started piano lessons when he was seven years old, and viola lessons at the age of ten. When he was seven Britten was sent to a dame school, run by the Misses Astle. The younger sister, Ethel, gave him piano lessons. The following year he moved on to his prep school, South Lodge, Lowestoft, as a day boy. The school had no musical tradition, and Britten continued to study the piano with Ethel Astle, and from the age of ten he took viola lessons from a friend of Ethel Britten’s, Audrey Alston, who had been a professional player before her marriage. In any spare time he composed prolifically. Many of these youthful compositions were later used in his Simple Symphony.
Audrey Alston encouraged Britten to go to symphony concerts in Norwich. At one of these, during the triennial Norfolk and Norwich Festival in October 1924, he heard Frank Bridge’s orchestral poem The Sea, conducted by the composer. Audrey Alston was a friend of Bridge; when he returned to Norwich for the next festival in 1927 she brought her 13-year-old pupil to meet him. Bridge was impressed with the boy, and after they had gone through some of Britten’s compositions together he invited him to come to London to take lessons from him. A compromise was agreed by which Britten would, as planned, go on to his public school the following year but would make regular day-trips to London to study composition with Bridge and piano with his colleague Harold Samuel. The earliest substantial works Britten composed while studying with Bridge are the String Quartet in F, completed in April 1928, and the Quatre Chansons Françaises, a song-cycle for high voice and orchestra.
In September 1928 Britten went as a boarder to Gresham’s School, in Holt, Norfolk. He remained there for two years, and in 1930, he won a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London; his examiners were the composers John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the college’s harmony and counterpoint teacher, S. P. Waddington. Britten was at the RCM from 1930 to 1933, studying composition with Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. He won the Sullivan Prize for composition, the Cobbett Prize for chamber music, and was twice winner of the Ernest Farrar Prize for composition. The first of Britten’s compositions to attract wide attention were the Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932), and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1933 for the BBC Singers, who first performed it the following year. In this same period he wrote Friday Afternoons, a collection of 12 songs mostly for unison singing, for the pupils of Clive House School, Prestatyn where his brother was headmaster.
In February 1935, at Bridge’s instigation, Britten was invited to a job interview by the BBC’s director of music Adrian Boult and his assistant Edward Clark. What came out of the interview was an invitation to write the score for a documentary film, The King’s Stamp, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for the GPO Film Unit. Britten became a regular member of the unit’s small group of regular contributors, another of whom was W. H. Auden. Together they worked on the films Coal Face and Night Mail. They also collaborated on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936), and subsequently other works including Cabaret Songs, On This Island, Paul Bunyan and Hymn to St. Cecilia. Britten composed prolifically in this period. In the three years 1935–37 he wrote nearly 40 scores for the theatre, cinema and radio.
In 1937 there were two events of huge importance in Britten’s life: his mother died, and he met the tenor Peter Pears. Pears quickly became Britten’s musical inspiration and close friend. Britten’s first work for him was composed within weeks of their meeting, a setting of Emily Brontë’s poem “A thousand gleaming fires” for tenor and strings. In the same year Britten composed a Pacifist March to words by Ronald Duncan for the Peace Pledge Union. The best-known of his compositions from this period is probably Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra. In April 1939 Britten and Pears sailed to North America, going first to Canada and then to New York. When the Second World War began, Britten and Pears turned for advice to the British embassy in Washington, and were told that they should remain in the US as artistic ambassadors. In America in 1940, Britten composed Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first of many song-cycles for Pears. Also hile in America Britten wrote his first music drama, Paul Bunyan, an operetta, to a libretto by Auden. Britten’s orchestral works from this period include the Violin Concerto, and Sinfonia da Requiem.
In 1942 Britten read the work of the poet George Crabbe for the first time. The Borough, set on the Suffolk coast, awakened in him such longings for England that he knew he must return. He also knew that he must write an opera based on Crabbe’s poem about the fisherman Peter Grimes. Before Britten left the US, Koussevitsky, always generous in encouraging new talent, offered him a $1,000 commission to write the opera. Britten and Pears returned to England in April 1942. During the long transatlantic sea crossing Britten completed the choral works A Ceremony of Carols and Hymn to St Cecilia. The latter was his last large-scale collaboration with Auden. Having arrived in Britain, Britten and Pears applied for recognition as conscientious objectors. He spent much of his time in 1944 working on the opera Peter Grimes which opened in June 1945 and was hailed by public and critics.
A month after the opening of Peter Grimes, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin went to Germany to give recitals to concentration camp survivors. What they saw, at Belsen most of all, so shocked Britten that he refused to talk about it until towards the end of his life, when he told Pears that it had coloured everything he had written since. The next two works Britten composed after his return, the song-cycle The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and the Second String Quartet, contrast strongly with earlier, lighter-hearted works such as Les Illuminations. Britten recovered his joie de vivre for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written for an educational film, Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent.
Britten’s next opera, The Rape of Lucretia, was presented at the first post-war Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. Britten and his associates set up the English Opera Group; the librettist Eric Crozier and the designer John Piper joined Britten as artistic directors. Britten wrote the comic opera Albert Herring for the group in 1947. While on tour in the new work Pears came up with the idea of mounting a festival in the small Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, where Britten had moved earlier in the year.
The Aldeburgh Festival was launched in June 1948, with Britten, Pears and Crozier directing it. Albert Herring played at the Jubilee Hall and Britten’s new cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra, Saint Nicolas, in the Parish Church. New works by Britten featured in virtually every Festival until his death in 1976, including the premieres of his operas A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Jubilee Hall and Death in Venice at Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Unlike many leading English composers, Britten was not known as a teacher, but from 1949 to 1951 he had his only private pupil, Arthur Oldham. Throughout the 1950s Britten continued to write operas: Billy Budd (1951); Gloriana (1953); and The Turn of the Screw (1954). An increasingly important influence on Britten was the music of the East, an interest that was fostered by a tour with Pears in 1957, when Britten encountered the music of the Balinese gamelan, and saw for the first time Japanese Noh plays. These eastern influences were seen and heard in the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and later in two of the three semi-operatic “Parables for Church Performance”: Curlew River (1964), and The Prodigal Son (1968). Britten composed his Cello Suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered them at the Aldeburgh Festival.
One of the best-known of Britten’s works, the War Requiem was premiered in 1962. In 1967 the BBC commissioned Britten to write an opera specially for television. Owen Wingrave was based, like The Turn of the Screw, on a ghost story by Henry James. He did not complete the score of the new opera until August 1970. The opera was first broadcast in Britain in May 1971, when it was also televised in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and Yugoslavia. In September 1970 Britten asked Myfanwy Piper, who had adapted the two Henry James stories for him, to turn another prose story into a libretto. This was Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, a subject he had been considering for some time. After the completion of the opera Britten went into the National Heart Hospital and was operated on in May 1973 to replace a failing heart valve. The replacement was successful, but he suffered a slight stroke, affecting his right hand. This brought his career as a performer to an end.
Britten’s last works include the Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was” (1974); the Third String Quartet (1975), which drew on material from Death in Venice; and the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1975), written for Janet Baker. Britten began writing Praise We Great Men, an unfinished composition for voices and orchestra based on a poem by Edith Sitwell. After the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten and Pears travelled to Norway. He returned to Aldeburgh in August, and wrote Welcome Ode for children’s choir and orchestra. In November, Britten realized that he could no longer compose. His health was never robust. He walked and swam regularly, and kept himself as fit as he could, but during his life he suffered from some 20 illnesses, a few of them minor but most fairly serious, before his final heart complaint developed. On his 63rd birthday, November 22, at his request Rita Thomson organized a party and invited his friends to say their goodbyes to the dying composer. When Rostropovich made his farewell visit a few days later, Britten gave him what he had written of Praise We Great Men. Britten died of congestive heart failure on December 4, 1976.
My collection contains the following works by Britten:
Lachrymae, Reflections on a Song of Dowland (1950) for string ensemble (1976).
Peter Grimes, op. 33 (1945): Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia.
Prelude and Fugue for 18 part String Orchestra, op. 29 (1943).
A Simple Symphony, op. 4 (1934).
Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20 (1940).
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10 (1937).
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, op. 34 (1946), from The Instruments of the Orchestra.