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Classical Composers A-Z: Benjamin Britten

Peter Wintersgill introduces Benjamin Britten, perhaps the greatest Twentieth Century British composer.

Born
22nd November, 1913, in Lowestoft.

Father
Robert, dentist.

Mother
Edith, amateur singer.

Family
One elder brother, two elder sisters

Childhood
Youngest child, rather spoilt. Musical home, first piano lessons from mother; showed early musical ability; used to accompany mother on piano. Day boy at prep school, then to Greshams in Norfolk. Had lessons in school holidays from Harold Samuel (piano) and Frank Bridge (composition).

Adolescence
Scholarship to R.C.M. 1930-33 (17-20). Not allowed to go to Vienna for lesson from Berg. Studied piano with Arthur Benjamin, composition with John Ireland. While at College wrote Sinfonietta (1932), A Boy was Born (1933).

Adult Life
Wrote Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937, dedicated to Bridge) for the Salzburg Festival. He then settled in London with his sister Beth. He met Peter Pears in 1934, who was a fine tenor and became a life long friend and colleague; also W.H. Auden, the poet, who supplied him with many texts. His mother died in 1937.

He started writing music for several films for the G.P.O. e.g. Night Mail. He then wrote a piano concerto (1938) dedicated to Lennox Berkeley, playing the solo himself at the premiere at the proms.

In 1939 he sailed to USA via Canada with Pears and Auden, where he stayed three years. While there he wrote the Violin Concerto (1939) for Brosa and the Sinfonia de Requiem in memory of his parents, the premiere was conducted in New York by Barbirolli. At this time he suffered from a series of throat infections, with bouts of severe depression. He returned to UK in 1942 and wrote the Hymn to St. Cecilia, The Ceremony of Carols and Song Cycle - Our Hunting Fathers (1936).

After his return he wrote his first choral work Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) for the 50th anniversary of a Northampton church. For the rest of the war he and Pears travelled about the country giving concerts for C.E.M.A. - later the Arts Council. For Pears and Dennis Brain he wrote the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. His best known opera was Peter Grimes, written for the postwar opening of Sadlers Wells (1945). This was a great success and has been popular ever since. Later operas include The Rape of Lucretia (1946) which had its premiere at Glyndebourne, and Albert Herring (1948) for the Aldeburgh Festival. Having a good understanding of small children he wrote The Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra (1946) and the Cantata St. Nicholas (1948) about a 4th Century saint. This was followed by the Spring Symphony (1949), a choral work first given in Amsterdam. About this time he wrote anthem for the Earl of Harewood's wedding and another opera Billy Budd for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Another children's work Lets make an Opera (1949) made the Aldeburgh Festival famous. About this time he was made a Freeman of Lowestoft. For the coronation in 1953 of Queen Elizabeth II he wrote an opera Gloriana, about Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex, played respectively by Joan Cross and Peter Pears. For this he was made a C.H, later an O.M. in 1965, and a life peer in 1976. Britten by now was getting well known the world over, honours flowed in, including Hon. Mus. Doc. degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge.

His only ballet, Prince of Pagodas (1956) had its premiere at Sadlers Wells, while his children's opera Noyes Fludde (1958) came out at Aldeburgh Festival. A notable work was the War Requiem (1961) for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral; this was a setting of some of Wilfred Owen's poems and the standard Requiem Mass. He was a life long pacifist and this was a fervent anti-war work. The soloists were his friend Peter Pears for England, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya for USSR and the German bass Dietrich Fischer - Diskau.
He made several tours of Russia, meeting Rostropovich, for whom he wrote a cello sonata (1961) and Shostakovich, who dedicated his 14th symphony to him. He was made Freeman of the Borough of Aldeburgh, which made him especially proud. At the age of 60 he had a heart valve operation, after which he never regained his former health and strength. He was increasingly tired and breathless on exertion, and produced no major works, though he was by no means idle.

He finally died on 4th December 1976 at Aldeburgh aged 63. There were many and varied tributes, e.g. the Times pronounced him "much more than the leading English composer of his time", while Ernest Bradbury in the Yorkshire Post called him "a kind of reincarnation of Mozart". There was a memorial service in March 1977 in Westminster Abbey attended by the Queen Mother.

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