EDWARD BENJAMIN BRITTEN 1913-1976

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Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten OM CH (1913 –1976) was an English composer, conductor and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the son of a dentist, Britten showed talent from an early age. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London and privately with the composer Frank Bridge. During his stay at the RCM he won several prizes for his compositions.

He completed a choral work, A Boy was Born, in 1933; at a rehearsal for a broadcast performance of the work by the BBC Singers, he met tenor Peter Pears, the beginning of a lifelong personal and professional relationship. (Many of Britten’s solo songs, choral and operatic works feature the tenor voice, and Pears was the designated soloist at many of their premieres).

From about 1935 until the beginning of World War II, Britten did a great deal of composing for the GPO Film Unit, for BBC Radio, and for small, usually left-wing, theater groups in London. During this period he met and worked frequently with the poet W. H. Auden who provided texts for numerous songs as well as complete scripts for which Britten provided incidental music.

"Portrait of  

Edward Benjamin Britten"

Author Rinat Kuramshin

In the spring of 1939, Britten and Pears sailed for North America, eventually settling in Amityville, Long Island, NY, where they lived with Dr. and Mrs. Wm. Mayer and their family. In 1940 he worked with Auden on what would become his first opera, actually an operetta for high schools called Paul Bunyan, based on traditional American folk characters. However, on a trip to California in 1941, he read an article by E. M. Forster on the English poet George Crabbe, planting the seed for what would eventually be Britten’s first opera, Peter Grimes. In 1942, Serge Koussevitzky became interested in Britten’s music and performed the Sinfonia da Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Britten and Pears worked on the scenario during their return voyage to England in March, 1942.

During the early 40s, Britten produced a number of works, outstanding among them the Hymn to St. Cecilia, A Ceremony of Carols, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Serenade (for tenor, horn, and strings), Rejoice in the Lamb, and the Festival Te Deum. Peter Grimes, with a libretto by Montagu Slater, was complete in 1945 and had its premiere on June 7 of that year by the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company.

In July 1945, Benjamin Britten went to Germany to give recitals to concentration camp survivors. What he saw there shocked him so much that he refused to talk about it; but later recouped his gaiety to compose ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.’ For a long time, it remained one of his most popular works.

Britten’s birthplace in Lowestoft, which was the Britten family home for over twenty years

John Piper’s Benjamin Britten memorial
window in the Church of St Peter and St
Paul, Aldeburgh

Benjamin Britten

Royal College of Music

Other operas appeared regularly in the ensuing years: 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 ((1957), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), The Prodigal Son (1968) Owen Wingrave (1970) [for television], and finally Death in Venice (1973). Amongst these works, the Britten catalog contains numerous other important compositions in other forms.

In 1961, Benjamin Britten was awarded UNESCO’s International Rostrum of Composers for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ In 1963, he received Grammy Awards for ‘The War Requiem’ in three categories: Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Composition by a Contemporary Composer and Best Classical Performance – Choral. Later in 1998, he was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Apart from these, he also received the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal (1964), the Sonning Award (1967) and Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1974). Britten was made a Companion of Honour in 1953. In 1965, he was awarded the Order of Merit and in July 1976, made a life peer, thus becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.

He died at his home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on 4 December 1976 and is buried in the churchyard of the Aldeburgh Parish Church. His colleagues Peter Pears and Imogene Holst, co-founders with BB of the Aldeburgh Festival, lie in adjacent graves.

A memorial stone unveiled in 1978 in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey also bears his legacy. In 1979, the Benjamin Britten Music Academy was established in Lowestoft in his honor. There are memorial plaques to him at three of his London homes: 173 Cromwell Road, 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.