Lord (Edward) Benjamin Britten
(Born; Lowestoft, 22 Nov 1913; Died; Aldeburgh, 4 Dec 1976).
English composer. He studied with Frank Bridge as a boy and in 1930 entered the RCM. In
1934 he heard Wozzeck and planned to study with Berg, but opposition at home
stopped him. The next year he began working for the GPO Film Unit, where one of his
collaborators was Auden: together they worked on concert works as well, Auden's social
criticism being matched by a sharply satirical and virtuoso musical style (orchestral song
cycle Our Hunting Fathers, 1936). Stravinsky and Mahler were important influences,
but Britten's effortless technique gave his early music a high personal definition,
notably shown in orchestral works (Bridge Variations for strings, 1937; Piano Concerto,
1938; Violin Concerto, 1939) and songs (Les illuminations, setting Rimbaud for high
voice and strings,1939).
In 1939 he left England for the USA, with his lifelong
companion Peter Pears; there he wrote his first opera, to Auden's libretto (Paul Bunyan,
1941). In 1942 he returned and, partly stimulated by Purcell, began to concentrate on
settings of English verse (anthem Rejoice in the Lamb and Serenade for tenor, horn
and strings, both 1943). His String Quartet no.2 (1945), with its huge concluding
chaconne, also came out of his Purcellian interests, but the major work of this period was
Peter Grimes (1945), which signalled a new beginning in English opera. Its central
character, the first of many roles written for Pears, struck a new operatic tone: a social
outcast, he is fiercely proud and independent, but also deeply insecure, providing
opportunities for a lyrical flow that would be free but is not. Britten's gift for
characterization was also displayed in the wide range of sharply defined subsidiary roles
and in the orchestra's sea music.
However, his next operas were all written for comparatively
small resources (The Rape of Lucretia, 1946 ; Albert Herring, 1947; a
version of The Beggar's Opera, 1948 ; The Little Sweep, 1949), for the
company that became established as the English Opera Group. At the same time he began
writing music for the Aldeburgh Festival, which he and Pears founded in 1948 in the
Suffolk town where they had settled (cantata St Nicolas, 1948 ; Lachrymae
for viola and piano,1949). And in this prolific period he also composed large concert
works (The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, 1946 ; Spring Symphony
with soloists and choir,1949) and songs.
The pattern of his output was thus set, though not the
style, for the operas show an outward urge to ever new subjects: village comedy in Albert
Herring, psychological conflict in Billy Budd (1951), historical reconstruction
in Gloriana (1953), a tale of ghostly possession in The Turn of the Screw
(1954), nocturnal magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), a struggle between
family history and individual responsibility in Owen Wingrave (1971) and, most
centrally, obsession with a doomed ideal in Death in Venice (1973), the last three
works being intermediate in scale between the chamber format of Herring and The
Screw, and the symphonic fullness of Budd and Gloriana, both written for
Covent Garden. But nearly all touch in some way on the themes of the individual and
society and the violation of innocence. Simultaneous with a widening range of subject
matter was a widening musical style, which came to include 12-note elements (Turn of
the Screw) and a heterophony that owed as much to oriental music directly as it did to
Mahler (cycle of 'church parables', or ritualized small-scale operas: Curlew River,
The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Prodigal Son, 1964-8).
Many of these dramatic works were written for the Aldeburgh
Festival, as were many of the instrumental and vocal works Britten produced for favoured
performers. For Rostropovich he wrote the Cello Symphony (1963) as well as a sonata and
three solo suites; for Pears there was the Hardy cycle Winter Words (1953) among
many other songs, and also a central part in the War Requiem (1961). His closing
masterpiece, however, was a return to the abstract in the String Quartet no.3 (1975).
Britten was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1952, to the
Order of Merit in 1965, and was awarded a life peerage in 1976.
Operas: Paul Bunyan (1941); Peter Grimes (1945); The Rape of Lucretia (1946); Albert Herring (1947); The Little Sweep (1949); Billy
Budd (1951); Gloriana (1953); The Turn of the Screw (1954); Noye's Fludde (1958); A
Midsummer Night's Dream (1960); Owen Wingrave (1971); Death in Venice (1973)Church
parablesCurlew River (1964); The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966); The Prodigal Son (1968)BalletThe Prince of the Pagodas (1957).
Orchestral music: Sinfonietta (1932); Simple Symphony (1934); Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, strs (1937); Pf Conc. (1938); Vn Conc. (1939); Sinfonia da requiem (1940); The Young Person's Guide to the
Orchestra (1946); Cello Sym. (1963).
Choral music: A Boy was Born (1933); Ballad of Heroes (1939); Hymn to St Cecilia (1942); A Ceremony of Carols (1942); Rejoice in the
Lamb (1943); Festival Te Deum (1944); St Nicolas (1948); Spring Sym. (1949); Cantata academica (1959); Missa brevis (1959); War Requiem (1961); Cantata misericordium (1963); Voices for Today (1965); The Golden Vanity (1966); Children's Crusade (1968); many others.
Chamber music: 3 str qts (1941, 1945,
1975); Lachrymae, va, pf (1949); Vc Sonata (1961); 3 vc suites (1964, 1967, 1972); many others.
Solo vocal music: Our Hunting Fathers
(1936); Les illuminations (1939); Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940); Serenade, T, hn,
strs (1943); The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945); 5 canticles (1947, 1952, 1954, 1971,
1974); Winter Words (1953); Songs from the Chinese (1957); Nocturne (1958); Sechs
Hölderlin-Fragmente (1958); Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (1965); The Poet's Echo
(1965); Phaedra (1975); many others.
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