According to Operabase, Britten has more operas played worldwide than any other composer born in the 20th century, and only Puccini and Richard Strauss come ahead of him if the list is extended to all operas composed after 1900.
Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on 22 November 1913, the feast day of Cecilia, patron saint of music. His childhood bedroom window looked out over the sea, which from childhood became a constant source of inspiration. As an adult he commented that he needed to live near water, a desire that comes from his youthful enjoyment of living so near the coast. "As a family," he was later to say, "we were enormously interested in the fishing. We had our favourite boats and knew all their names."
His mother Edith was an enthusiastic amateur pianist and singer and although she encouraged all of her children (Britten had three siblings) to play the piano it was Benjamin whom she regarded as specially gifted. He was educated in Lowestoft and at Gresham's School at Holt, Norfolk. Formal music lesson began with the piano at five and the viola at the age of 10. His viola teacher Audrey Alston arranged for him to meet the composer Frank Bridge whose orchestral suite The Sea had by Britten’s own admission "knocked [him] sideways". Bridge agreed to given tuition to Britten who had by this time already written a large volume of music. These important lessons, however, influenced the way he was to view his output and trained him to become more critical of his work. Between the ages of five and 18 he composed well over 750 individual pieces, including songs, chamber music and full scale orchestral works. He kept everything and on occasion revised it. The earliest of these pieces is his Simple Symphony of 1934, which is based on piano music composed between the ages of nine and 12. He returned to his juvenilia throughout his life, re-examining it, sometimes with a view toward publication. The String Quartet in D major of 1931 is the last of these revised scores, and Britten worked on it only two years before his death.
Britten entered the Royal College of Music, having won an open scholarship in 1930, where his teachers included John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin and it was here that he produced his Opus 1, the Sinfonietta for small orchestra. This was dedicated to Bridge but a more stated acknowledgement of his gratitude appeared later with his work for string orchestra, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, premiered by the Boyd Neel Orchestra in the Netherlands in 1937. On graduation Britten supported himself by writing music for theatre, radio and film, working with people such as poet W H Auden who produced the texts for GPO (General Post Office) film documentaries such as Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936).
In 1936 Britten met Lennox Berkeley, another old boy of Gresham's School, at the ISCM Festival in Barcelona. Berkeley fell in love with Britten, who appears to have been wary of entering a relationship, writing in his diary, "we have come to an agreement on that subject." Nevertheless, the two composers shared a house for a year, living in the Old Mill at Snape, Suffolk, which Britten had acquired in July 1937. They subsequently enjoyed a long friendship and artistic association, collaborating on a number of works including the suite of Catalan dances titled Mont Juic, and Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (with four other composers).
Britten and Pears
Britten met the tenor Peter Pears (born 1910) during the mid-1930s (neither one could recall exactly when) and this was the beginning of a lifelong personal and professional partnership. They travelled together to the United States in 1939 to explore new opportunities in their careers. During their three years there Britten composed significant new scores such as the technically challenging but dazzling Violin Concerto (1939), the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) which he dedicated eventually to the memory of his parents, and the American folktale-based operetta Paul Bunyan (1941) to a libretto by Auden. It was in the USA that Britten and Pears established their life partnership and although they were prevented from legally living openly together they travelled and lived as a couple settling for a time in the family home of William and Elizabeth Mayer, German emigres who lived in Amity, Long Island.
Eventually, homesick, concerned about family and friends, and with a desire to begin work in Suffolk on a new opera commissioned by the Russian-born American conductor Serge Koussevitzky, Britten returned to England at the height of the Second World War. Both he and Pears were ardent pacifists and believed that they could best serve their fellow human being at this troubled time through their music. They registered as Conscientious Objectors, taking work for CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) which involved much touring, bringing music to various parts of the war-torn country. Pears also became Britten’s principal source of inspiration: song cycles including the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) and the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), the Thomas Hardy settings Winter Words (1953) and Nocturne (1958) were all composed very much with Pears's voice in mind: he premiered the Michelangelo and Donne sonnets and Hardy poems with Britten accompanying him at the piano, and these works received multiple performances during their many recitals together. Pears also introduced audiences to many of Britten's major operatic roles, beginning in 1945 with Peter Grimes, the opera Koussevitzky had commissioned, and the first work staged at Sadler’s Wells theatre following the end of the War. Grimes ushered a resurgence in interest and enthusiasm for opera in English and proved to be a great success. It was based on part of a poem by the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe and focused on a community whose lives and attitudes were shaped by the sometimes brutal east coast.
English Opera Group
In 1947 Britten and Pears helped form a new opera company, originally based at Glyndebourne. His first two works for the company were the chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia (1946) which retold the classical story of Lucretia and Tarquinius and featured Kathleen Ferrier in the title role, and Albert Herring (1947) a humorous retelling of a short story by Guy de Maupassant, reset in Suffolk. Although both operas were first staged at Glyndebourne, the company, now known as The English Opera Group, worked independently and it was for them that Britten wrote almost all remaining operatic works.
Although most of his film work was confined to productions for the GPO and Crown Film Units, Britten wrote the score for a film for the Ministry of Education entitled Instruments of the Orchestra. A set of variations and fugue based on music from Henry Purcell’s incidental music for Aphra Behn’s play Abdelazar, or the Moor’s Revenge, it became a concert piece in its own right, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, possibly his most well-known and widely performed work. Britten’s prolific operatic output included the children’s opera The Little Sweep (1949) which is coupled with a play about putting a stage work together called Let’s Make an Opera. In 1951 he composed Billy Budd, after the story by Herman Melville, for the Festival of Britain. Gloriana was written in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and did not prove to be a critical success, although subsequent revivals of the work have revised opinion. In 1954 he returned to the chamber opera format and composed The Turn of the Screw, after the ghost story by Henry James, which was premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice in 1954. With its small cast of characters and orchestra of 13 players the opera recreates the mounting tension and suspense that is integral to James’s story, with Britten suggesting settings as diverse as a peaceful summer’s evening and a disturbing, haunted house.
Britten at Aldeburgh
Britten had by this time settled on the seafront of Aldeburgh on England’s east coast where in 1948, with Pears and Eric Crozier, he established the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. This annual event witnessed the first performances of many key Britten works such as the cantata Saint Nicolas (1948) commemorating the centenary of Pears’s old school Lancing College, Noye’s Fludde (1958) an opera for amateur and professional alike, and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream composed to mark the refurbishment of Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall in 1960. Many performances took place in the hall as well as in local churches in places such as Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham which gave the event a sense of local identity. Britten wished to bring music to his community and this he did by attracting many world renowned artists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Dennis Brain, Maurice Gendron and George Malcolm. The operation expanded considerably and gradually a bigger concert venue was required to house a large audience and a stage that could accommodate a full-sized symphony orchestra and chorus. In 1967 Britten and his Festival committee oversaw the lease of a disused Maltings in Snape, which was converted by Arup Associates into a Concert Hall.
Britten’s composition encompassed ballet, chamber works, symphony and concerto. He produced what was thought for many years to be his only full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas for the Royal Ballet in January 1957 (the short ballet Plymouth Town dates from 1931 and is one of a number of works he wrote during his student years at the RCM). Much of the Eastern character of the music was strongly influenced by a visit to the island of Bali that the composer undertook whilst on a lengthy working holiday in 1956. The imaginative percussive sound for the dance of the salamander, for example, demonstrates the impression made by the music of the Gamelan. The Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) was originally commissioned to commemorate the founding of the Japanese Empire, but its strongly Christian context was judged to be too much in contrast with the occasion for which it was written, and as a consequence it was not performed in Japan. The Spring Symphony (1949), on the other hand, was another commission from Koussevitzky and is structured into four parts, with a strong vocal and choral element. It includes settings of the poetry of Spenser, Nashe, Milton, Peele, Herrick, Vaughan, Barnfield, Auden, Blake, Beaumont and Fletcher. The Violin and Piano Concertos are both relatively early works, dating from just before and during Britten’s time in the USA. The Piano Concerto is a lively work in four movements, showing influences from composers such as Prokofiev. Britten was himself the soloist at the 1938 premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall. The Violin Concerto, like the Piano Concerto, underwent a degree of revision by the composer, but it is a mature work, romantic in nature, and is becoming an established part of the repertoire. It was premiered in March 1940 at Carnegie Hall with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic, and soloist Antonio Brosa.
Britten’s chamber works include items for string quartet, viola and piano, works for solo instruments such as oboe (Six Metamorphoses after Ovid) and cello (the three suites for solo cello written for Mstislav Rostropovich between 1964 and 1971). He composed a huge number of chamber pieces as part of his juvenilia, several of which he revised later in life, and several more which have been selected for publication since his death.
Britten’s abiding interest was in the voice. He wrote a great deal of music for vocal and choral performance and usually had particular musicians in mind when he was composing. A large number of song cycles for piano and orchestral accompaniment were written for Pears, but he also composed works the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. These two singers, with Pears, formed the trio for whom Britten specifically wrote solo parts in his War Requiem of 1962, a work that decried the tragedy of war, which he regarded as one of his most important compositions.
Settings of English poetry in Serenade, Nocturne, Winter Words and Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965) as well as works in translation: Songs from the Chinese (1957), Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958) and the songs of the Russian poet Pushkin The Poet’s Echo (1965) demonstrate a sound understanding of how verse can be interpreted, and appeal to the listener, through music.
His music for voice remains central to the choral repertoire and his song cycles, realizations of Purcell and folksong arrangements often heard in concert recital. All of Britten’s operas, including the operetta Paul Bunyan written with Auden in 1941, have remained in the repertoire and are finding a growing international audience.
Britten also established close working relationships with instrumentalists Julian Bream, Osian Ellis and Rostropovich, consequently enriching the repertoire for guitar, harp and cello respectively. War Requiem was written at The Red House, a large eighteenth-century farmhouse approximately a mile from the centre of Aldeburgh where Britten and Pears moved in 1957, and it was here and later at a cottage in Horham near the border between Norfolk and Suffolk that Britten continued to work for the rest of his life. Here he completed an operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with libretto that he and Pears arranged from Shakespeare’s play, as well as three Parables for Church performance.
Britten was commissioned by the BBC to compose an opera for television and he chose as his subject another ghost story by Henry James. Owen Wingrave, the tale of a young man from a military family who struggles with their disapproval at his decision to renounce the life of a soldier, also had personal meaning for Britten. Recorded at the composer’s request at the Maltings it was first screened on BBC television on 16 May 1971. Amid the onslaught of ill health, brought on by a severe heart condition, he wrote his final opera Death in Venice with librettist Myfanwy Piper, with whom he had worked on both The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave. An adaptation of the novel by Thomas Mann, the opera premiered at the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival, and it contained the final principal role (that of Gustav von Aschenbach) he would write for Pears.
During the next three years Britten completed a number of major pieces including A Time There Was… the orchestral Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974), A Birthday Hansel (a set of Burns songs written especially for the seventy-fifth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 1975) and the cantata Phaedra (written for Janet Baker, and premiered at the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival).
In June 1976 Britten was awarded a life peerage in recognition of his work as a musician, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk, but his waning health was by now taking its toll. He had been able to complete work on his third and final String Quartet, which was rehearsed privately for him by the Amadeus String Quartet in the Library at The Red House, but he did not live to see its premiere, which took place two weeks after his death on 4 December 1976.
Pears remained at The Red House. He continued his work as a singer and also as an administrator and teacher at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies at Snape which was formally opened in 1979. Pears died on 3 April 1986 and is buried beside Britten in St Peter and Paul's churchyard, Aldeburgh (see Burial places#Photo gallery).
- Carpenter, Humphrey (1992). Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Faber and Faber). ISBN 978-0-571-14324-5.
- Evans, John (2010). Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 1928-1938 (Faber and Faber). ISBN 9780571274642
- Oliver, Michael (1966). Benjamin Britten (Phaidon). ISBN 9780714832777.