Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, and wrote music in many genres. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, and wrote music in many genres. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.
Born in Suffolk, the son of a dentist, Britten showed talent from an early age. He first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy Was Born in 1934. With the premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to international fame. Over the next nine years, he wrote six more operas, establishing himself as one of the leading 20th-century composers in the genre.
Britten's works range from orchestral to choral, solo vocal (much of it written for his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears), chamber and instrumental, as well as film music. He also took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, and was a renowned pianist and conductor.
Together with Pears and the librettist and producer Eric Crozier, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival, and was responsible for the creation of Snape Maltings concert hall. In his last year, he was the first composer to be given a life peerage.
Britten was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, on the east coast of England. He was the youngest of the four children of Robert Victor Britten (1878–1934) and his wife Edith Rhoda, née Hockley (1874–1937).[n 1] Robert Britten's youthful ambitions to become a farmer had been thwarted by lack of capital, and he had instead qualified as a dentist, a profession he practised successfully but without pleasure. While studying at Charing Cross Hospital in London he met Edith Hockley, the daughter of a junior Home Office official. They were married in September 1901 at St John's, Smith Square, London.
The consensus among biographers of Britten is that his father was a loving but somewhat stern and remote parent, with a liking for whisky. Britten, according to his sister Beth, "got on well with him and shared his wry sense of humour, dedication to work and capacity for taking pains". Edith Britten was a talented amateur musician and secretary of the Lowestoft Musical Society. In the English provinces of the early 20th century the distinctions of social class were taken very seriously. Britten described his family as "very ordinary middle class", but there were aspects of the Brittens that were not ordinary: Edith's father was illegitimate and her mother an alcoholic; Robert Britten was an agnostic and refused to attend church on Sundays. Music was the principal means by which Edith Britten 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. He recovered more fully than expected, and as a boy was a keen tennis player and cricketer. To Edith Britten's great delight he 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. He was one of the last composers brought up on exclusively live music: his father refused to have a gramophone, or, later, a radio in the house.
When he was seven Britten was sent to a dame school, run by the Misses Astle. The younger sister, Ethel, gave him piano lessons; in later life he said that he remained grateful for the excellence of her teaching. The following year he moved on to his prep school, South Lodge, Lowestoft, as a day boy. The headmaster, Thomas Sewell, was an old-fashioned disciplinarian; the young Britten was outraged at the severe corporal punishments frequently handed out, and later said that his lifelong pacifism probably had its roots in his reaction to the regime at the school. He himself rarely fell foul of Sewell, a mathematician, in which subject Britten was a star pupil. 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. When his Simple Symphony, based on these juvenilia, was recorded in 1956, Britten wrote this pen-portrait of his young self for the sleeve note:
Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy. … He was quite an ordinary little boy … he loved cricket, only quite liked football (although he kicked a pretty "corner"); he adored mathematics, got on all right with history, was scared by Latin Unseen; he behaved fairly well, only ragged the recognised amount, so that his contacts with the cane or the slipper were happily rare (although one nocturnal expedition to stalk ghosts left its marks behind); he worked his way up the school slowly and steadily, until at the age of thirteen he reached that pinnacle of importance and grandeur never to be quite equalled in later days: the head of the Sixth, head-prefect, and Victor Ludorum. But—there was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music. His friends bore with it, his enemies kicked a bit but not for long (he was quite tough), the staff couldn't object if his work and games didn't suffer. He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it.
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. Britten was, in his own phrase, "knocked sideways". 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. Robert Britten, supported by Thomas Sewell, doubted the wisdom of pursuing a composing career; 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.
As well as scrupulous attention to the technical craft of composing,[n 2] Bridge impressed on Britten, "you should find yourself and be true to what you found." 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. Authorities differ on the extent of Bridge's influence on his pupil's technique. Humphrey Carpenter and Michael Oliver judge that Britten's abilities as an orchestrator were essentially self-taught; Donald Mitchell writes of Bridge's influence on the cycle.
In September 1928 Britten went as a boarder to Gresham's School, in Holt, Norfolk. He did not enjoy his time there. He hated being separated from his family, most particularly from his mother; he despised the music master; and he was shocked at the prevalence of bullying, though he was not the target of it. 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. These honours notwithstanding, he was not greatly impressed by the establishment: he found his fellow-students "amateurish and folksy" and the staff "inclined to suspect technical brilliance of being superficial and insincere".[n 3] Another Ireland pupil, the composer Humphrey Searle, said that Ireland could be "an inspiring teacher to those on his own wavelength"; Britten was not, and learned little from him; he continued to study privately with Bridge. Nonetheless, he later praised Ireland for "nurs[ing] me very gently through a very, very difficult musical adolescence".
Britten also used his time in London to attend concerts and become better acquainted with the music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and, most particularly, Mahler.[n 4] He intended postgraduate study in Vienna with Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg's student, but was eventually dissuaded by his parents, at the advice of the RCM staff.
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. Britten was not enthusiastic about the prospect of working full-time in the BBC music department, and was relieved when 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), radical both in politics and musical treatment, and subsequently other works including Cabaret Songs, On This Island, Paul Bunyan and Hymn to St. Cecilia. Auden was a considerable influence on Britten, encouraging him to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons, and also to come to terms with his homosexuality. Auden was, as David Matthews puts it, "cheerfully and guiltlessly promiscuous"; Britten, puritanical and conventional by nature, was sexually repressed. 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. Extraordinarily devoted as Britten was to his mother, he was devastated at her death; but it seems to have been also something of a liberation for him. Only after that did he begin to engage in emotional relationships with those of his own age, or younger. Later in the year he got to know Pears while they were both helping to clear out the country cottage of a mutual friend who had died in an air crash. Pears quickly became Britten's musical inspiration and close (though for the moment platonic) 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, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member; the work was not a success and was soon withdrawn. The best-known of his compositions from this period is probably Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, described by Matthews as the first of Britten's works to become a popular classic. It was a success in North America, with performances in Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, under conductors including John Barbirolli and Serge Koussevitsky.
In April 1939 Britten and Pears sailed to North America, going first to Canada and then to New York. They had several reasons for leaving England, including the difficult position of pacifists in an increasingly bellicose Europe; the success that Frank Bridge had enjoyed in the US; the departure of Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood, who had moved there from England three months previously; hostile or belittling reviews of Britten's music in the English press; and under-rehearsed and inadequate performances. Their relationship ceased to be platonic, and from then until Britten's death they were partners in both their professional and personal lives.
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. Pears was inclined to disregard the advice and go back to England; Britten also felt the urge to return, but accepted the embassy's counsel and persuaded Pears to do the same. In America in 1940, Britten composed Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first of many song-cycles for Pears.
Already a friend of the composer Aaron Copland, Britten encountered his latest works Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture, both of which influenced his own music. While 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.
Moving to the US did not relieve Britten of the nuisance of hostile criticism: although Olin Downes, the doyen of New York music critics, and Irving Kolodin took to Britten's music, Virgil Thomson, described by Britten as an intellectual composer with a grudge, was, as Suzanne Robinson puts it in a study of American press treatment of Britten, "consistently ... severe and spiteful". He described Les Illuminations (1940) as "little more than a series of bromidic and facile 'effects' … pretentious, banal and utterly disappointing", and was equally unflattering about Pears's voice. Robinson surmises that Thomson was motivated by "a mixture of spite, national pride, and professional jealousy". More generally, Paul Bunyan met with wholesale critical disapproval, and the Sinfonia da Requiem (already rejected by its Japanese sponsors because of its overtly Christian nature) received a mixed reception when Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic premiered it in March 1941. The reputation of the work was much enhanced when Koussevitsky took it up shortly afterwards.
While in the US Britten had his first encounter with Balinese gamelan music, through transcriptions for two pianos made by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee. The two met in the summer of 1939, and subsequently performed a number of McPhee's transcriptions for a recording. This musical encounter bore fruit in several Balinese-inspired works later in Britten's career.
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.[n 5] 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. Britten had grown away from him, and Auden became one of the composer's so-called "corpses" – former intimates from whom he completely cut off contact once they had outlived their usefulness to him or offended him in some way.
Having arrived in Britain, Britten and Pears applied for recognition as conscientious objectors; Britten was initially allowed only non-combatant service in the military, but gained unconditional exemption on appeal. After the death of his mother in 1937 he had used money she bequeathed him to buy the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, which became his country home. He spent much of his time there in 1944 working on the opera Peter Grimes. Pears joined Sadler's Wells Opera Company, whose artistic director, the singer Joan Cross, announced her intention to re-open the company's home base in London with Britten's opera with herself and Pears in the leading roles.[n 6] There were complaints from company members about supposed favouritism and the "cacophony" of Britten's score, as well as some ill-suppressed homophobic remarks. Peter Grimes opened in June 1945 and was hailed by public and critics; its box-office takings matched or exceeded those for La bohème and Madame Butterfly, which were staged during the same season. The opera administrator Lord Harewood called it "the first genuinely successful British opera, Gilbert and Sullivan apart, since Purcell." Dismayed by the in-fighting among the company, Cross, Britten and Pears severed their ties with Sadler's Wells in December 1945, going on to found what was to become the English Opera Group.
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. Colin Matthews comments that 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. It became, and remained, his most often played and popular work.[n 7]
Britten's next opera, The Rape of Lucretia, was presented at the first post-war Glyndebourne Festival in 1946. It was then taken on tour to provincial cities under the banner of the "Glyndebourne English Opera Company", an uneasy alliance of Britten and his associates with John Christie, the autocratic proprietor of Glyndebourne. The tour lost money heavily, and Christie announced that he would underwrite no more tours. Britten and his associates set up the English Opera Group; the librettist Eric Crozier and the designer John Piper joined Britten as artistic directors. The group's express purpose was to produce and commission new English operas and other works, presenting them all round the country. 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 from Snape 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. The Festival was an immediate success, and became an annual event that, at 2013, continues to the present day. 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 in 1960 and Death in Venice at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1973.
Unlike many leading English composers, Britten was not known as a teacher,[n 8] but from 1949 to 1951 he had his only private pupil, Arthur Oldham. Oldham made himself useful to his teacher, acting as musical assistant and arranging Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge for full orchestra for the Frederick Ashton ballet Le Rêve de Léonor (1949), but he later described the teacher-pupil relationship as "beneficial five per cent to [Britten] and ninety-five per cent to me!"
Throughout the 1950s Britten continued to write operas. Billy Budd (1951) was well received at its Covent Garden premiere, and was regarded by reviewers as an advance on Peter Grimes. Gloriana (1953), written to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, had a cool reception at the gala premiere in the presence of the Queen and the British Establishment en masse. The downbeat story of Elizabeth I in her decline, and Britten's uncompromisingly modern score did not overcome what Matthews calls the "ingrained philistinism" of the ruling classes. The critics praised the work, and it did well at the box office, but it was not revived in Britain for another 13 years. The Turn of the Screw the following year was an unqualified success; together with Peter Grimes it became, and at 2013 remained, one of the two most frequently performed of Britten's operas.
In the 1950s the "fervently anti-homosexual" Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, urged the police to enforce the Victorian laws making the practice of homosexuality illegal.[n 9] Britten and Pears came under scrutiny; Britten was visited by police officers in 1953 and was so perturbed that he discussed with his assistant Imogen Holst the possibility that Pears might have to enter a sham marriage (with whom is unclear). In the end nothing was done.
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 once again encountered the music of the Balinese gamelan, and saw for the first time Japanese Noh plays, which he called "some of the most wonderful drama I have ever seen." 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).
By the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its customary venues, and plans to build a new concert hall in Aldeburgh were not progressing. When redundant Victorian maltings buildings in the village of Snape, six miles inland, became available for hire, Britten had the vision that the largest of them could be converted into a concert hall and opera house. The 830-seat Snape Maltings concert hall was opened by the Queen at the opening of the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival on 2 June 1967; it was immediately hailed as one of the best concert halls in the country. The hall was destroyed by fire in 1969, but Britten was determined that it would be rebuilt in time for the following year's Festival, which it was. The Queen once again attended the opening performance in 1970.
The Maltings gave the Festival a venue that could comfortably house large orchestral works and operas. Britten conducted the first performance outside Russia of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony at Snape in 1970. Shostakovich, a friend since 1960, dedicated the symphony to Britten; he was himself the dedicatee of The Prodigal Son. Two other Russian musicians who were close to Britten and regularly performed at the Festival were the pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten composed his Cello Suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Rostropovich, who premiered them at the Aldeburgh Festival.
One of the best-known of Britten's works, the War Requiem was premiered in 1962. He had been asked four years earlier to write a work for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, a modernist building designed by Basil Spence. The old cathedral had been left in ruins by an air-raid in 1940 in which hundreds of people died. Britten decided that his work would commemorate the dead of both World Wars in a large-scale score for soloists, chorus and orchestra. His text interspersed the traditional Requiem Mass with poems by Wilfred Owen. Matthews writes, "With the War Requiem Britten reached the apex of his reputation: it was almost universally hailed as a masterpiece." Shostakovich told Rostropovich that he believed it to be "the greatest work of the twentieth century".
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. By the 1960s Britten found composition much slower than in his prolific youth; he told the 28-year-old composer Nicholas Maw, "Get as much done now as you can, because it gets much, much more difficult as you grow older." 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. At an early stage in composition Britten was told by his doctors that a heart operation was essential if he was to live for more than two years. He was determined to finish the opera, and worked urgently to complete it before going into hospital for surgery. His long-term colleague Colin Graham wrote:
Perhaps of all his works, this one went deepest into Britten's own soul: there are extraordinary cross-currents of affinity between himself, his own state of health and mind, Thomas Mann, Aschenbach (Mann's dying protagonist), and Peter Pears, who must have had to tear himself in three in order to reconstitute himself as the principal character.
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. While in hospital Britten became friendly with a senior nursing sister, Rita Thomson; she moved to Aldeburgh in 1974 and looked after him until his death.
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.
In the last year of his life Britten accepted a life peerage – the first composer so honoured – and in July 1976 became Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.[n 10] After the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten and Pears travelled to Norway, where Britten began writing Praise We Great Men, an unfinished composition for voices and orchestra based on a poem by Edith Sitwell. He returned to Aldeburgh in August, and wrote Welcome Ode for children's choir and orchestra. In November, Britten realised that he could no longer compose. On his 63rd birthday, 22 November, at his request Rita Thomson organised a champagne party and invited his friends and his sisters Barbara and Beth, 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 4 December 1976. His funeral service was held at Aldeburgh Parish Church three days later, and he was buried in its churchyard, with a gravestone carved by Reynolds Stone. The authorities at Westminster Abbey had offered burial there, but Britten had made it clear that he wished his grave to be side by side with that, in due course, of Pears. A memorial service was held at the Abbey on 10 March 1977, at which the congregation was headed by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
Despite his large number of works on Christian themes, Britten has sometimes been thought of as agnostic. Pears said that when they met in 1937 he was not sure whether or not Britten would have described himself as a Christian. In the 1960s Britten called himself a dedicated Christian, though sympathetic to the radical views propounded by the Bishop of Woolwich in Honest to God. Politically, Britten was on the left. He told Pears that he always voted either Liberal or Labour, and could not imagine ever voting Conservative, but he was never a member of any party, except the Peace Pledge Union.
Britten's health was never robust. He walked and swam regularly, and kept himself as fit as he could, but Carpenter in his 1992 biography mentions 20 illnesses, a few of them minor but most fairly serious, suffered over the years by Britten, before his final heart complaint developed. Some commentators have suggested that emotionally Britten never completely grew up, retaining in his outlook something of a child's view of the world; he was not always confident that he was the genius others declared him to be, and though he was hypercritical of his own works, he was acutely, even aggressively, sensitive to criticism from anybody else.
Britten was, as he acknowledged, notorious for dumping friends and colleagues who either offended him or ceased to be of use – his "corpses" The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras believed that the term was invented by Lord Harewood. Both Mackerras and Harewood joined the list of corpses, the former for joking that the number of boys in Noye's Fludde must have been a delight to the composer, and the latter for an extramarital affair and subsequent divorce from Lady Harewood which shocked the puritanical Britten. Among other corpses were his librettists Montagu Slater and Eric Crozier. The latter said in 1949, "He has sometimes told me, jokingly, that one day I would join the ranks of his 'corpses' and I have always recognized that any ordinary person must soon outlive his usefulness to such a great creative artist as Ben." Dame Janet Baker said in 1981, "I think he was quite entitled to take what he wanted from others ... He did not want to hurt anyone, but the task in hand was more important than anything or anybody." Matthews feels that this aspect of Britten has been exaggerated, and observes that he sustained many deep friendships to the end of his life.
Britten was attracted to young boys – what Auden called "thin-as-a-board juveniles – sexless and innocent". In public, the matter was little discussed during Britten's lifetime and much discussed after it. Carpenter's 1992 biography addressed the matter, as did later studies of Britten, most particularly John Bridcut's Britten's Children (2006), which concentrates exclusively on this aspect of the composer. Among those to whom Britten was drawn were the young David Hemmings and Michael Crawford, who sang treble roles in his works in the 1950s. Hemmings later said, "In all of the time that I spent with him he never abused that trust", and Crawford wrote "I cannot say enough about the kindness of that great man … he had a wonderful patience and affinity with young people. He loved music, and loved youngsters caring about music." Some commentators have continued to question Britten's conduct, sometimes very sharply; Carpenter and Bridcut conclude that he held any sexual impulses under firm control and kept the relationships affectionate but strictly platonic.
Cause of death
A more recent controversy was the statement in a 2013 biography of Britten by Paul Kildea that the composer's heart failure was due to undetected syphilis, which Kildea speculates was a result of Pears's promiscuity while the two were living in New York. The cardiologist who looked after Britten during the last three years of the latter's life later dismissed the suggestion; he told The Guardian that it was "extremely unlikely" that Britten had syphilis, and "complete rubbish" that the surgeon who operated on Britten's heart in 1973 would or even could have covered up the condition, as Kildea had alleged. Kildea continued to contend, "When all the composer's symptoms are considered there can be only one cause". In The Times, Richard Morrison highly praised the rest of Kildea's book, and hoped that its reputation would not be "tarnished by one sensational speculation … some second-hand hearsay … presenting unsubstantiated gossip as fact".
Britten was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in 1953; a Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden) in 1962, and was appointed to the British Order of Merit (OM) in 1965. He was awarded honorary degrees and fellowships by 19 conservatoires and universities in Europe and America. His awards included the Hanseatic Goethe Prize, (1961); the Aspen Award, Colorado, (1964); the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal (1964); the Sibelius Prize (1965); the Mahler Medal of Honour (Bruckner and Mahler Society of America, 1967); the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (Denmark, 1968); the Ernst von Siemens Prize (1974); and the Ravel Prize (1974).
Prizes for individual works included UNESCO's International Rostrum of Composers 1961, (for A Midsummer Night's Dream); and for the War Requiem Grammy Awards 1963 – Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Composition by a Contemporary Composer and Best Classical Performance – Choral (Other than Opera); the BRIT Awards 1977 – Best Orchestral Album of the past 25 years; and the Grammy Hall of Fame Award 1998.
The Red House in Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears lived and worked together from 1957 until Britten's death in 1976, is now the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation, established to promote their musical legacy. In Britten's centenary year his studio at the Red House was restored to the way it was in the 1950s and opened to the public. The converted hayloft was designed and built by H. T. Cadbury-Brown in 1958 and was described by Britten as a "magnificent work".
In June 2013 Dame Janet Baker officially opened the Britten-Pears archive in a new building in the grounds of the Red House.
A memorial stone to Britten was unveiled in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey in 1978. There are memorial plaques to him at two of his London homes: 45a St John's Wood High Street, and 8 Halliford Street in Islington. In April 2013 Britten was honoured by the Royal Mail in the UK, as one of ten people selected as subjects for the "Great Britons" commemorative postage stamp issue.
Other creative artists have celebrated Britten. In 1970 Walton composed Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, based on a theme from Britten's Piano Concerto. Works commemorating Britten include Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten an orchestral piece written in 1977 by Arvo Pärt, and Sally Beamish's Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, based on the second Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes; she composed the work to mark Britten's centenary. Alan Bennett depicts Britten in a 2009 play The Habit of Art, set while Britten is composing Death in Venice and centred on a fictional meeting between Britten and Auden. Britten was played in the premiere production by Alex Jennings.
In September 2012, to mark the composer's forthcoming centenary, the Britten-Pears Foundation launched "Britten 100" at the Britten Theatre. The events planned were a collaboration of leading organisations from the worlds of performing arts, publishing, broadcasting, film, academia and heritage. The feature film Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict, written and directed by Tony Britten, and with narration by John Hurt, was released in May 2013. It includes observations from Joseph Horovitz, from the cellist and Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra survivor Anita Lasker Wallfisch, and from Sue Phipps, Peter Pears's niece and agent to Pears and Britten. In London, the British Library mounted a centenary exhibition, "Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten", using its extensive collection of Britten manuscripts, with an accompanying series of talks by Britten experts.
In Britain centenary performances of the War Requiem were announced for 18 venues including St Paul's Cathedral and the Royal Albert Hall; opera productions included Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh, Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, Death in Venice by English National Opera, Gloriana by The Royal Opera, and Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream by Opera North. Internationally, the centenary is marked by performances of the War Requiem in Australia, Austria, China, Germany, Hungary, Japan and Russia; Peter Grimes in China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia; and many of the other works across the world. In The New York Times Anthony Tommasini wrote in June 2013, "In America alone the Britten festivities are coast to coast," and listed some of the major centenary events, including a festival at Carnegie Hall, performances at the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
On 17 June Peter Grimes was performed on the beach for the first time, at Aldburgh, as the opening to the 2013 Aldburgh Festival, with Steuart Bedford conducting and singers from the Chorus of Opera North and the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Britten's operas are firmly established in the international repertoire. According to Operabase, he 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 an accomplished pianist, frequently performing chamber music and accompanying lieder and song recitals. However, apart from the Holiday Diary (1934), Piano Concerto (1938), Young Apollo (1939), Diversions (written for Paul Wittgenstein in 1940), Scottish Ballad (1941), he wrote relatively little music that puts the piano in the spotlight, and in a 1963 interview for the BBC said that he thought of it as "a background instrument".
Op92; A Birthday Hansel for high voice and harp (1975)
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One of Britten's best known works is The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. Its subtitle is Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell; the theme is a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazer. Britten gives individual variations to each of the sections of the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. The original film's spoken commentary is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.
Britten's church music is also considerable: it contains frequently performed 'classics' such as Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for St Matthew's Northampton (where the Vicar was Revd Walter Hussey), as well as A Hymn to the Virgin, and Missa Brevis for boys' voices and organ.
Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar (1963) has an important place in the repertoire of its instrument. This work is typically spare in his late style, and shows the depth of his lifelong admiration for Elizabethan lute songs. In each of the eight variations Britten focuses on a different feature of the work's theme, Dowland's song Come, Heavy Sleep, or its lute accompaniment, before the theme emerges complete at the close of the work.
In 2005, the Britten-Pears Foundation, in partnership with the University of East Anglia, was awarded funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to produce a thematic catalogue of Britten's works. The project is distinguished by being the first composer thematic catalogue to be published initially online. (All previous thematic catalogues have been print publications, though some have been published online later.) The work involves gathering and cataloguing manuscript and published notation and published recordings, producing a chronology, and assigning identifiers to Britten's works. These identifiers are in addition to Britten's own opus numbers and, after the style of preceding thematic catalogues such as BWV for J.S. Bach, comprise the letters 'BTC' followed by numbers assigned in chronological order. The catalogue includes numerous unpublished works and is expected, when completed in 2013, to include around 1,200 works. (Britten's published output includes around two hundred works, of which ninety-five works were assigned opus numbers.)
Britten, though a reluctant conductor and a nervous pianist, was greatly sought after in both capacities. The piano accompanist Gerald Moore wrote in his memoirs about playing at all the main music festivals except for Aldeburgh, because "as the presiding genius there is the greatest accompanist in the world, my services are not needed".[n 11] Britten's recital partnership with Pears was his best-known collaboration, but he also accompanied Kathleen Ferrier, Rostropovich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, James Bowman and John Shirley-Quirk, among others. Though usually too nervous to play piano solos, Britten often performed piano duets with Clifford Curzon and Sviatoslav Richter, and chamber music with the Amadeus Quartet. The composers whose works, other than his own, he most often played were Mozart and Schubert; the latter, in Murray Perahia's view, was Britten's greatest idol. As a boy and young man, Britten had intensely admired Brahms, but his admiration waned to nothing, and Brahms seldom featured in his repertory.[n 12]
As a conductor, Britten's repertory included Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, and occasional less characteristic choices including Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust; Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Introduction and Allegro; and short pieces by Percy Grainger.
Britten, like Elgar and Walton before him, was signed up by a major British recording company,[n 13] and performed a considerable proportion of his output on disc. For the Decca Record Company he made some early monaural records, and with the enthusiastic support of the Decca producer John Culshaw he made numerous stereophonic versions of his works. Culshaw wrote, "The happiest hours I have spent in any studio were with Ben, for the basic reason that it did not seem that we were trying to make records or video tapes; we were just trying to make music."
In May 1943 Britten made his debut in the Decca studios, accompanying Sophie Wyss in five of his arrangements of French folk songs. The following January he and Pears recorded together, in Britten's arrangements of British folk songs, and the following day, in duet with Curzon he recorded his Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca and Mazurka elegiaca. In May 1944 he conducted the Boyd Neel string orchestra, Dennis Brain and Pears in the first recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, which has frequently been reissued, most recently on CD.
Britten's first operatic recording was The Turn of the Screw, made in January 1955 with the original English Opera Group forces. In 1957 he conducted The Prince of the Pagodas in an early stereo recording, supervised by Culshaw. Decca's first major commercial success with Britten came the following year, with Peter Grimes, which has, at 2013, never been out of the catalogues since its first release. From 1958 Britten conducted Decca recordings of many of his operas and vocal and orchestral works, including the Nocturne (1959), the Spring Symphony (1960), Noye's Fludde (1961) and the War Requiem (1963). The last sold in unexpectedly large numbers for a classical set, and thereafter Decca unstintingly made resources available to Culshaw and his successors for Britten recordings. Sets followed of Albert Herring (1964), the Sinfonia da Requiem (1964) Curlew River (1965), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1966), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1967), Billy Budd (1967) and many of the other major works. In 2013, to mark the anniversary of Britten's birth, Decca released a set of 65 CDs and one DVD, "Benjamin Britten – Complete Works".[n 14] Most of the recordings were from Decca's back catalogue, but in the interests of comprehensiveness a substantial number of tracks were licensed from 20 other companies including EMI, Virgin Classics, Naxos, Warner and NMC.
As a pianist and conductor in other composers' music, Britten made many recordings for Decca. Among his studio collaborations with Pears are sets of Schubert's Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin, Schumann's Dichterliebe, and songs by Haydn, Mozart, Bridge, Ireland, Holst, Tippett and Richard Rodney Bennett. Other soloists whom Britten accompanied on record were Ferrier, Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. For Decca he conducted works by a wide range of composers, from Purcell to Grainger. Among his best-known recordings are The Fairy-Queen, the Brandenburg Concertos, The Dream of Gerontius and Mozart's last two symphonies.
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