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Benjamin Britten: Benjamin Britten, in full Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten Of Aldeburgh, (born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, Suffolk, England—died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, Suffolk), leading British composer of the mid-20th century, whose operas were considered the finest English operas since those of Henry Purcell in the 17th century. He was also an outstanding pianist and conductor.
Benjamin Britten was born on St Cecilia's Day, 1913. His father was a dental surgeon, his mother a keen amateur singer. Music was an early love; and he started to compose at the age of five. He was taught the piano and viola; and by the time he left his preparatory school, his juvenile output included ten piano sonatas, six string quartets, three suites for piano, an oratorio, and dozens of songs. In 1927 he met the composer Frank Bridge; and it was arranged that he should have composition lessons from him in the school holidays, and piano lessons from Harold Samuel. He spent two years (1928-30) at Gresham's School, Holt, and then, being determined to make music his career, went to the Royal College of Music, having won an open scholarship in composition.
His period as a student seems to have been unsatisfactory and frustrating. He worked under John Ireland for composition and Arthur Benjamin for piano; but during his three years at college (1930-3) only one of his compositions was played there - the Sinfonietta - and even that had already been performed at a public concert elsewhere. Residence in London was important insofar as it gave him a chance to attend many concerts, particularly of contemporary music; but he failed to persuade the College Library to buy a copy of the score of Schonberg's Pierrot Lunaire and, when he received a small travelling bursary in 1933, he was not allowed to use it as he wished, by going to Vienna to study under Berg.
In 1934, the year in which Hoist, Delius, and Elgar died, Benjamin Britten came of age. He was determined to earn his living by composition. The Phantasy Quartet was played at the ISCM Festival at Florence that summer; and a set of choral variations for mixed voices unaccompanied, entitled A Boy was Born, was broadcast by the BBC. The following year he joined the GPO Film Unit and in the next five years produced incidental music for numerous documentary films. As soon as his flair for occasional and incidental music was recognised, commissions for theatre and radio work followed.
The GPO Film Unit brought him in touch with the poet W. H. Auden, who was four years his senior, and they worked together on various films including Night Mail. This collaboration developed outside the film world. Benjamin Britten wrote incidental music for two Auden/Isherwood verse plays; and Auden provided the texts for the first of Benjamin Britten's song cycles, On this Island, and for a symphonic cycle called Our Hunting Fathers. His influence on Benjamin Britten was important, particularly insofar as it brought the composer a deeper appreciation of the beauties of poetry, and an increased awareness of the problems involved in the alliance of words with music.
In 1937, in response to a commission from the Boyd Neel String Orchestra, Benjamin Britten wrote Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which caused a sensation at the Salzburg Festival that summer and helped to establish his international reputation. The following year his Piano Concerto in D major was performed at a Prom, with himself as soloist.
By 1939 the darkening political situation in Europe led a number of artists to decide to leave England. Auden and Isherwood were among the first to go to the United States, and their example influenced Benjamin Britten, who (by his own account) was feeling 'muddled, fed-up and looking for work, longing to be used'. He and his friend, Peter Pears the tenor, left England early that summer, going first to Canada, and then to Long Island where they spent the greater part of the next two and a half years. The first major work Benjamin Britten completed during this American visit was the Violin Concerto in D minor, and this was followed by the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) dedicated to the memory of his parents. Particularly successful were two vocal works: Les Illuminations (1939), a setting of some of Rimbaud's poems for high voice and string orchestra, and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940) for tenor and piano, written specially for Peter Pears. Work with Auden was resumed when they collaborated on an operetta, Paul Bunyan, based on the legend of the giant American pioneer. This was produced at Columbia University, New York, in May 1941 and elicited tepid notices from the critics. Auden also supplied him with the text of a cantata, Hymn to St Cecilia.
By 1942 Benjamin Britten was increasingly homesick and doubtful whether he really wanted to stay on in America. Eventually he made up his mind to return to England; and while he and Peter Pears were waiting on the East Coast for a passage across the Atlantic, he chanced to meet Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and as a result of this meeting the Koussevitzky Music Foundation offered Benjamin Britten a commission for a new opera to be dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky.
Benjamin Britten and Pears left America in March 1942, sailing on a small Swedish cargo boat that took more than a month to make the dangerous crossing. During the voyage Benjamin Britten completed the Hymn to St Cecilia and composed A Ceremony of Carols for treble voices and harp. As a pacifist by conviction he had to appear before a tribunal shortly after arriving back in England; but in view of his conscientious objections he was exempted from military service and allowed to continue his work of composition, provided he also performed as a pianist at the special wartime concerts that were being promoted by CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) all over the country. He returned to his old house at Snape, Suffolk, where he had been living before the war.
The next three years were occupied partly in arranging performances of the works he had brought back from America with him, partly in composing Rejoice in the Lamb, a festival cantata to words by Christopher Smart, and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, but mainly in working on his new opera, Peter Grimes, whose hero was based on the eponymous character in George Crabbe's poem The Borough. The composition was started in January 1944 and finished thirteen months later. It was agreed that the first performance of Peter Grimes (7th June 1945) should mark the return of the Sadler's Wells Opera Company to Sadler's Wells Theatre from which it had been exiled during the war.
The success of Peter Grimes, with Peter Pears playing the title role, was immediate and decisive; and Benjamin Britten's work as an opera composer became a matter of international concern. At the same time dissensions at Sadler's Wells led to a change of operatic policy at that theatre; and some of the artists seceded to form a small-scale company determined to work for Benjamin Britten. To help launch this company, he agreed to write a new opera for eight singers and twelve instrumentalists. This chamber opera was The Rape of Lucretia, which was given at Glyndebourne in the summer of 1946. The following year the company, renamed the English Opera Group, visited Glyndebourne with Albert Herring, a new comic opera by Benjamin Britten, and revived The Rape of Lucretia.
In 1947 Benjamin Britten moved house from Snape to Aldeburgh; and that summer the Group took The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring to two festivals in Europe. It was in the course of this tour that Peter Pears had an inspiration. 'Why not make our own festival', he suggested, 'and have it at home?' The first Aldeburgh Festival was accordingly planned for 1948 and proved so successful that it became an annual event.
Benjamin Britten's life now began to follow a fairly regular pattern. There was usually a new opera on the stocks, and other compositions to be fitted in; various engagements as conductor or pianist to be carried out, particularly recital tours with Peter Pears; and the annual Aldeburgh Festival to be planned and presented. Three new works of his proved immensely popular. The Spring Symphony (1949) for soloists, mixed choir, boys' voices and orchestra, provided a symphonic setting for a miniature anthology of poems about spring. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946) - variations and fugue on a theme by Purcell - was originally written for a film entitled Instruments of the Orchestra, but pursued a vigorous life of its own in the concert-hall. And Let's Make an Opera! which might be described as a young person's guide to opera, scored a phenomenal success when presented at the 1949 Aldeburgh Festival.
He frequently received commissions for special occasions. Billy Budd was commissioned by the Arts Council for the Festival of Britain, 1951; and Gloriana was commissioned for the Coronation of Elizabeth II (1953). Both operas were produced at Covent Garden. The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera, was commissioned by the Venice Biennale of 1954, and Owen Wingrave by the BBC for television presentation in 1971. War Requiem was written for the Coventry Cathedral Festival (1961) on the occasion of the rededication of that Cathedral.
Towards the end of 1955, Benjamin Britten and Pears left England on an extended tour that took them to the Far East, where they visited Bali, Japan, and India. On his return Benjamin Britten wrote the music for The Prince of the Pagodas, a full-length ballet, devised and choreographed by John Cranko, which was produced at Covent Garden on the 1st January 1957. Some of its divertissements showed the influence of Javanese gamelan music.
In 1958 the Aldeburgh Festival presented Noye's Fludde at Oxford Church. This was the Chester Miracle Play set to music by Benjamin Britten; and its success led to the presentation of other dramatic works with music for church presentation. In 1964, with the assistance of William Plomer, Benjamin Britten adapted Sumidagawa, a Japanese Noh play, into Curlew River, styled 'a parable for church performance', and this was followed by The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), both written to a similar formula, but based on Biblical episodes instead of Noh play material. For these church parables the chamber orchestra was reduced to a group of seven or eight instrumentalists without conductor.
During the 1960s Benjamin Britten became friendly with a number of Russian musicians. Some of them, particularly Rostropovich and Richter, appeared occasionally at the Aldeburgh Festival; and for Rostropovich he wrote a Symphony for 'Cello and Orchestra (1963) and three suites for 'cello unaccompanied (1965, 1967, and 1971). In 1963 Benjamin Britten and Pears paid the first of several highly successful visits to the USSR, and two years later they attended a Benjamin Britten Festival at Yerevan in Armenia.
In early years one of the main difficulties at the Aldeburgh Festival had been how to mount opera productions on the cramped stage of the Jubilee Hall. A chamber opera like Albert Herring might just fit; but in 1960 it was only with the greatest difficulty that Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream was squeezed onto it. A solution was found in 1967, when part of the Makings at Snape was converted into a concert and opera hall. Two years later the building was destroyed by fire. But it was immediately rebuilt; and since then its fine acoustic properties have shown it to be one of the outstanding halls in Europe. It is suitable for the open-platform presentation of opera; and the first performance of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice was given there (16th June 1973).
In the spring of 1973 Benjamin Britten was admitted to hospital with a heart lesion. The subsequent operation was only partly successful; and afterwards his activities had to be severely curtailed. Composition continued, though on a more restricted scale than formerly. In 1974 he wrote his fifth canticle, The Death of Saint Narcissus, for tenor and harp; and Phaedra, an orchestral cantata specially written for Janet Baker, was given at the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival.
Benjamin Britten always had the knack of knowing how to fit memorable music to carefully chosen words; and this conferred special distinction on all his vocal music, and on his operas too. He knew how to use music to the best effect, whether in the concert-hall, on the stage or in the church. His music possessed qualities of freshness and simplicity that made it easily accessible to the common listener; and he never lost the radiance that came from the imaginative understanding of youth.
Benjamin Britten composed as a child and at the age of 12 began several years of study under the composer and teacher Frank Bridge. He later studied under John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin at the Royal College of Music in London and, while there, composed the set of choral variations A Boy Was Born (1933; revised, 1958). He then worked as a composer for the radio, theatre, and cinema, coming into close contact with the poet W.H. Auden. In 1937 his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, for string orchestra, won him international acclaim.
From 1939 to 1942 he was in the United States, where his first work for the stage, the operetta Paul Bunyan (1941; libretto by Auden), was performed. A commission by the Koussevitzky Foundation led to the composition of his opera Peter Grimes (1945; libretto by M. Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough), which placed Benjamin Britten in the forefront of 20th-century composers of opera. His later operas include The Rape of Lucretia (1946); the comic Albert Herring (1947); Billy Budd (1951; after Herman Melville); Gloriana (1953; written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II); The Turn of the Screw (1954; after Henry James); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960); Owen Wingrave (television, 1971); and Death in Venice (1973; after Thomas Mann).
With the church parable Curlew River (1964), his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese Noh theatre and English medieval religious drama. Two other church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’s Fludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester mystery plays. The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Benjamin Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival (founded 1947), which became one of the most important English music festivals and the centre of Benjamin Britten’s musical activities.
Preeminent among Benjamin Britten’s nontheatrical music are his song cycles. Among those that established his stature as a songwriter are (for voice and piano) Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940; written for the tenor Peter Pears, his life partner and artistic collaborator), The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), Winter Words (1953), and Hölderlin Fragment (1958); and (for voice and orchestra) Our Hunting Fathers (1936; text by Auden), Les Illuminations (1939; text by Arthur Rimbaud), and Serenade (1943).
Benjamin Britten’s largest choral work is the War Requiem (1962) for choir and orchestra, based on the Latin requiem mass text and the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in World War I. Other choral works include the Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942; text by Auden), Ceremony of Carols (1942), Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), St. Nicolas (1948), Spring Symphony (1949), and Voices for Today (1965; written for the United Nations’ 20th anniversary).
Among his principal instrumental works are the Simple Symphony for strings (1925); three string quartets (1941, 1945, and 1976); concerti for piano and for violin; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945); and Symphony in D Major for Cello and Orchestra (1963), written for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Benjamin Britten’s operas are admired for their skillful setting of English words and their orchestral interludes, as well as for their dramatic aptness and depth of psychological characterization. In chamber operas such as The Rape of Lucretia and the church parables, he proved that serious music theatre could flourish outside the opera house. His continual willingness to experiment with modern musical styles, forms, and sonorities and with new theatrical environments proved extremely fruitful.
Benjamin Britten was created Companion of Honour in 1953 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1965. In June 1976 he was created a life peer, the first musician or composer to be elevated to the peerage.
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