Benjamin Britten

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The outstanding English composer of the mid-twentieth century, Britten established English opera as a viable form and produced a distinguished body of compositions for both professional and amateur musicians. He was also a skilled pianist and conductor, of both his own works and those of other composers.

Early Life

Edward Benjamin Britten was born November 22, 1913, St. Cecilia’s Day, in Lowestoft, Suffolk. His mother, née Edith Roda Hockey, was the secretary of the Lowestoft Choral Society and a fine amateur singer. His father, Robert Victor Britten, was a successful dentist. Britten studied piano, first with his mother and then with a local teacher. He began composing at age five and continued while attending South Lodge Preparatory School in Lowestoft as a day student. He also studied viola, and when he was twelve, his teacher introduced him to the composer Frank Bridge, with whom he arranged private composition studies. Bridge, with whom he continued to work for many years, was the outstanding influence on Britten’s development as a composer and musician. Britten later remembered his childhood as idyllic, and this contributed to his later interest in writing music for children and his treatment of the theme of innocence betrayed.

In 1928, Britten embarked upon two not very happy years at Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk, while at the same time beginning piano lessons with Harold Samuel in London and continuing his studies with Bridge. At age seventeen, deciding that music would be his career, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London, winning an open scholarship in composition. During his three years there, he made good progress in his piano studies with Arthur Benjamin, eventually taking his diploma as a performer. His composition studies with John Ireland were a disappointment, especially since he had already developed formidable technical skills from his studies with Bridge.

Britten had difficulty getting his works performed at the college, and his official Opus 1, the Sinfonietta for ten instruments, was premiered at a private concert in January, 1933. His other important works of this period included a String Quartet in D of 1931, the Phantasy Quartet for oboe and strings, first broadcast in 1933, and the choral variations A Boy Was Born of 1933. Many of these were later substantially revised. At the end of 1933, abandoning a plan to study composition with Alban Berg in Vienna owing to opposition from the college authorities, Britten settled down in London to make his living as a composer. One of his first tasks was to transform some of his earliest effort at composing into the Simple Symphony (1925) for performance in early 1934. His Phantasy Quartet was played at an International Society for Contemporary Music concert in Florence that April. On his return, he found that his father had died.

Photographs of Britten at this time show a serious but boyish-looking man with curly hair and a prominent nose, and he retained this appearance until his heart problems in the late 1960’s. Most portraits also show a trace of a smile which hints at his underlying sense of humor, but the eyes betray both his enormous determination and the high standards that he demanded of himself and his colleagues. He long retained the physique of the cricket player that he had been in his youth, but his outward relaxation only partly concealed inner tensions.

Britten was the consummate professional, both as composer and as performer, and he demanded no less of others. Although he believed strongly that music should be made available to performers at all levels, and himself wrote a distinguished body of works for nonprofessionals, he could not abide compositions or performances which were amateurish, sloppy, or poorly conceived. Britten was, however, deeply sensitive to criticism of his own work throughout his life.

Life’s Work

Britten’s first work as a professional composer was to provide music for films produced by the General Post Office Film Unit from 1934 to 1937. There he met the poet W. H. Auden, with whom he collaborated on such films as Coal Face (1936) and Night Mail (1936). Auden made a profound impact on Britten, stimulating his interest in poetry, espousing his own antibourgeois and generally leftist political views, and introducing the young composer to a group of like-minded, primarily homosexual intellectuals, which included himself and Christopher Isherwood. During this period, Britten also contributed music to a number of theatrical productions. His major composition was Our Hunting Fathers, a song cycle for soprano and large orchestra to a biting text by Auden concerning the relationship of man to animals. It premiered at the Norwich Festival in 1936 and received a cool reception.

In 1937, Britten lost the support of his mother, who died in January, and the inspiration of Auden, who left England to participate in the Spanish Civil War. He did, however, form a lasting professional and personal relationship with the tenor Peter Pears. They gave their first song recital together later that year and virtually all of Britten’s solos for tenor voice were written for Pears’ unique talents. In the same year, Britten wrote his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for the Boyd Neel Orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival. This series of ten variations for string orchestra, both a technical tour de force and an affectionate tribute to his teacher, was a triumph and established Britten’s reputation beyond England.

Beginning in late 1937, Britten composed his song cycle On This Island (text by Auden), Mont Juic, an orchestral suite of Catalan dances written jointly with Lennox Berkeley, and the Piano Concerto (revised in 1945). By March, 1939, he had completed his Ballad of Heroes (text by Auden and Randall Swingler) in memory of Britons killed in Spain. In early 1939, against a background of worldwide economic depression and impending war, Auden and Isherwood left England for the United States intending to emigrate. Britten and Pears followed in May, traveling to Canada and then to New York. That year, Britten wrote his Violin Concerto, his Young Apollo for piano, string quartet, and string orchestra (withdrawn until 1979), the orchestral overture Canadian Carnival, and the song cycle for high voice and string orchestra Les Illuminations (text by Arthur Rimbaud). Britten was ill and homesick in early 1940 but still managed to complete his Sinfonia da Requiem, Diversions, and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo for tenor and piano.

Britten’s major work from this period was the American folk opera Paul Bunyan (libretto by Auden), which premiered in May, 1941, deemed a failure and withdrawn. The most significant event of the period occurred in Los Angeles that summer when Britten read the transcript of a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio talk by E. M. Forster on the Suffolk poet George Crabbe. After reading Crabbe’s poem The Borough (1810), Britten was struck with the realization that his own roots were in Suffolk and that the section of the poem describing the renegade fisherman Peter Grimes would make a suitable subject for an opera. In January, 1942, he received a commission for such an opera from the Koussevitzky Foundation, and he and Pears embarked for England by sea. During the voyage, he completed two of his most personal and enduring shorter works, A Hymn to St. Cecilia (text by Auden) for unaccompanied chorus, and Ceremony of Carols for treble voices and harp to mostly medieval texts.

On their return to Great Britain, the two musicians were granted conscientious objector status on the condition that they give recitals under the auspices of what was later to become the Arts Council of Great Britain. Britten’s American works were performed, and the next year, 1943, he composed his moving Serenade for tenor, horn, and string orchestra, the Prelude and Fugue for eighteen-part string orchestra, and several smaller choral works, including the cantata for chorus and organ Rejoice in the Lamb (text by Christopher Smart).

All this work was overshadowed by the composition of the opera Peter Grimes (libretto by Montague Slater) completed in February, 1945. It was chosen for the postwar reopening of Sadler’s Wells Theatre in June, 1945, with Pears in the title role. Despite difficulties encountered in rehearsals, it was a spectacular success. Within three years, it had been performed in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and the United States, and virtually by itself made English opera a viable form.

Peter Grimes was followed in 1946 by The Rape of Lucretia (libretto by Ronald Duncan), a chamber opera written for a breakaway group from the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in conjunction with the new Glyndebourne Festival. It was not a success and was especially criticized for inserting Christian moralizing into a classical story. Other new works,...

(The entire section is 3768 words.)