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. Britten first came to public attention with the a cappella choral work A Boy was Born in 1934. With the premiere of Peter Grimes in 1945, he leapt to international fame. Over the next 28 years, he wrote 14 more operas, establishing himself as one of the leading 20th-century composers in the genre. In addition to large-scale operas for Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden, he wrote chamber operas for small forces, suitable for performance in venues of modest size. Among the best known of these is The Turn of the Screw (1954). Recurring themes in his operas include the struggle of an outsider against a hostile society and the corruption of innocence.
Britten's other works range from orchestral to choral, solo vocal, chamber and instrumental as well as film music. He took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, including the opera Noye's Fludde, a Missa Brevis, and the song collection Friday Afternoons. He often composed with particular performers in mind. His most frequent and important muse was his personal and professional partner, the tenor Peter Pears; others included Kathleen Ferrier, Jennifer Vyvyan, Janet Baker, Dennis Brain, Julian Bream, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Osian Ellis and Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten was a celebrated pianist and conductor, performing many of his own works in concert and on record. He also performed and recorded works by others, such as Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Mozart symphonies, and song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.
Together with Pears and the librettist and producer Eric Crozier, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and he was responsible for the creation of Snape Maltings concert hall in 1967. In his last year, he was the first composer to be given a life peerage.
Life and career
Personal life and character
Despite his large number of works on Christian themes, Britten has sometimes been thought of as agnostic. Pears said that when they met in 1937 he was not sure whether or not Britten would have described himself as a Christian. In the 1960s Britten called himself a dedicated Christian, though sympathetic to the radical views propounded by the Bishop of Woolwich in Honest to God. Politically, Britten was on the left. He told Pears that he always voted either Liberal or Labour and could not imagine ever voting Conservative, but he was never a member of any party, except the Peace Pledge Union.
Physically, Britten was never robust. He walked and swam regularly and kept himself as fit as he could, but Carpenter in his 1992 biography mentions 20 illnesses, a few of them minor but most fairly serious, suffered over the years by Britten before his final heart complaint developed. Emotionally, according to some commentators, Britten never completely grew up, retaining in his outlook something of a child's view of the world. He was not always confident that he was the genius others declared him to be, and though he was hypercritical of his own works, he was acutely, even aggressively sensitive to criticism from anybody else.
Britten was, as he acknowledged, notorious for dumping friends and colleagues who either offended him or ceased to be of use – his "corpses". The conductor Sir Charles Mackerras believed that the term was invented by Lord Harewood. Both Mackerras and Harewood joined the list of corpses, the former for joking that the number of boys in Noye's Fludde must have been a delight to the composer, and the latter for an extramarital affair and subsequent divorce from Lady Harewood, which shocked the puritanical Britten. Among other corpses were his librettists Montagu Slater and Eric Crozier. The latter said in 1949, "He has sometimes told me, jokingly, that one day I would join the ranks of his 'corpses' and I have always recognized that any ordinary person must soon outlive his usefulness to such a great creative artist as Ben." Dame Janet Baker said in 1981, "I think he was quite entitled to take what he wanted from others ... He did not want to hurt anyone, but the task in hand was more important than anything or anybody." Matthews feels that this aspect of Britten has been exaggerated, and he observes that the composer sustained many deep friendships to the end of his life.
Throughout his adult life, Britten had a particular rapport with children and enjoyed close friendships with several boys, particularly those in their early teens.[n 12] The first such friendship was with Piers Dunkerley, 13 years old in 1934 when Britten was aged 20. Other boys Britten befriended were the young David Hemmings and Michael Crawford, both of whom sang treble roles in his works in the 1950s. Hemmings later said, "In all of the time that I spent with him he never abused that trust", and Crawford wrote "I cannot say enough about the kindness of that great man ... he had a wonderful patience and affinity with young people. He loved music, and loved youngsters caring about music."[n 13]
It was long suspected by several of Britten's close associates that there was something exceptional about his attraction to teenage boys: Auden referred to Britten's "attraction to thin-as-a-board juveniles ... to the sexless and innocent", and Pears once wrote to Britten: "remember there are lovely things in the world still – children, boys, sunshine, the sea, Mozart, you and me". In public, the matter was little discussed during Britten's lifetime and much discussed after it.[n 14] Carpenter's 1992 biography closely examined the evidence, as do later studies of Britten, most particularly John Bridcut's Britten's Children (2006), which concentrates on Britten's friendships and relationships with various children and adolescents. Some commentators have continued to question Britten's conduct, sometimes very sharply. Carpenter and Bridcut conclude that he held any sexual impulses under firm control and kept the relationships affectionate – including bed-sharing, kissing and skinny dipping – but strictly platonic.
Cause of death
A more recent controversy was the statement in a 2013 biography of Britten by Paul Kildea that the composer's heart failure was due to undetected syphilis, which Kildea speculates was a result of Pears's promiscuity while the two were living in New York. In response, Britten's consultant cardiologist said that, like all the hospital's similar cases, Britten was routinely screened for syphilis before the operation, with negative results. He described as "complete rubbish" Kildea's allegation that the surgeon who operated on Britten in 1973 would or even could have covered up a syphilitic condition. Kildea continued to maintain, "When all the composer's symptoms are considered there can be only one cause". In The Times, Richard Morrison praised the rest of Kildea's book, and hoped that its reputation would not be "tarnished by one sensational speculation ... some second-hand hearsay ... presenting unsubstantiated gossip as fact".
Britten's early musical life was dominated by the classical masters; his mother's ambition was for him to become the "Fourth B" – after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Britten was later to assert that his initial development as a composer was stifled by reverence for these masters: "Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen I knew every note of Beethoven and Brahms. I remember receiving the full score of Fidelio for my fourteenth birthday ... But I think in a sense I never forgave them for having led me astray in my own particular thinking and natural inclinations". He developed a particular animosity towards Brahms, whose piano music he had once held in great esteem; in 1952 he confided that he played through all Brahms's music from time to time, "to see if I am right about him; I usually find that I underestimated last time how bad it was!"
Through his association with Frank Bridge, Britten's musical horizons expanded. He discovered the music of Debussy and Ravel which, Matthews writes, "gave him a model for an orchestral sound". Bridge also led Britten to the music of Schoenberg and Berg; the latter's death in 1935 affected Britten deeply. A letter at that time reveals his thoughts on the contemporary music scene: "The real musicians are so few & far between, aren't they? Apart from the Bergs, Stravinskys, Schoenbergs & Bridges one is a bit stumped for names, isn't one?" – adding, as an afterthought: "Shostakovitch – perhaps – possibly". By this time Britten had developed a lasting hostility towards the English Pastoral School represented by Vaughan Williams and Ireland, whose work he compared unfavourably with the "brilliant folk-song arrangements of Percy Grainger"; Grainger became the inspiration of many of Britten's later folk arrangements. Britten was also impressed by Delius, and thought Brigg Fair "delicious" when he heard it in 1931. Also in that year he heard Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which he found "bewildering and terrifying", yet at the same time "incredibly marvellous and arresting". The same composer's Symphony of Psalms, and Petrushka were lauded in similar terms. However, he and Stravinsky later developed a mutual antipathy informed by jealousy and mistrust.
Besides his growing attachments to the works of 20th century masters, Britten – along with his contemporary Michael Tippett – was devoted to the English music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, in particular the work of Purcell. In defining his mission as a composer of opera, Britten wrote: "One of my chief aims is to try to restore to the musical setting of the English Language a brilliance, freedom and vitality that have been curiously rare since the death of Purcell". Among the closest of Britten's kindred composer spirits – even more so than Purcell – was Mahler, whose Fourth Symphony Britten heard in September 1930. At that time Mahler's music was little regarded and rarely played in English concert halls. Britten later wrote of how the scoring of this work impressed him: "... entirely clean and transparent ... the material was remarkable, and the melodic shapes highly original, with such rhythmic and harmonic tension from beginning to end". He soon discovered other Mahler works, in particular Das Lied von der Erde; he wrote to a friend about the concluding "Abschied" of Das Lied: "It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful".[n 15] Apart from Mahler's general influence on Britten's compositional style, the incorporation by Britten of popular tunes (as, for example, in Death in Venice) is a direct inheritance from the older composer.
The Britten-Pears Foundation considers the composer's operas "perhaps the most substantial and important part of his compositional legacy." Britten's operas are firmly established in the international repertoire: according to Operabase, they are performed worldwide more than those of any other composer born in the 20th century, and only Puccini and Richard Strauss come ahead of him if the list is extended to all operas composed after 1900.
The early operetta Paul Bunyan stands apart from Britten's later operatic works. Philip Brett calls it "a patronizing attempt to evoke the spirit of a nation not his own by W. H. Auden in which Britten was a somewhat dazzled accomplice". The American public liked it, but the critics did not,[n 16] and it fell into neglect until interest revived near the end of the composer's life.
Britten's subsequent operas range from large-scale works written for full-strength opera companies, to chamber operas for performance by small touring opera ensembles or in churches and schools. In the large-scale category are Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) and Death in Venice (1973). Of the remaining operas, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), The Little Sweep (1949) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were written for small opera companies. Noye's Fludde (1958), Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968) were for church performance, and had their premieres at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford. The secular The Golden Vanity was intended to be performed in schools. Owen Wingrave, written for television, was first presented live by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1973, two years after its broadcast premiere.
Music critics have frequently commented on the recurring theme in Britten's operas from Peter Grimes onward of the isolated individual at odds with a hostile society. The extent to which this reflected Britten's perception of himself, pacifist and homosexual, in the England of the 1930s, 40s and 50s is debated. Another recurrent theme is the corruption of innocence, most sharply seen in The Turn of the Screw.
Over the 28 years between Peter Grimes and Death in Venice Britten's musical style changed, as he introduced elements of atonalism – though remaining essentially a tonal composer – and of eastern music, particularly gamelan sounds but also eastern harmonies. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the orchestral scoring varies to fit the nature of each set of characters: "the bright, percussive sounds of harps, keyboards and percussion for the fairy world, warm strings and wind for the pairs of lovers, and lower woodwind and brass for the mechanicals". In Death in Venice Britten turns Tadzio and his family into silent dancers, "accompanied by the colourful, glittering sounds of tuned percussion to emphasize their remoteness."
As early as 1948 the music analyst Hans Keller, summarising Britten's impact on 20th-century opera to that date, compared his contribution to that of Mozart in the 18th century: "Mozart may in some respects be regarded as a founder (a 'second founder') of opera. The same can already be said today, as far as the modern British – perhaps not only British – field goes, of Britten". In addition to his own original operas, Britten, together with Imogen Holst, extensively revised Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1951) and The Fairy-Queen (1967). Britten's Purcell Realizations brought Purcell, who was then neglected, to a wider public, but have themselves been neglected since the dominance of the trend to authentic performance practice. His 1948 revision of The Beggar's Opera amounts to a wholesale recomposition, retaining the original melodies but giving them new, highly sophisticated orchestral accompaniments.
Throughout his career Britten was drawn to the song cycle form. In 1928, when he was 14, he composed an orchestral cycle, Quatre chansons françaises, setting words by Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. Brett comments that though the work is much influenced by Wagner on the one hand and French mannerisms on the other, "the diatonic nursery-like tune for the sad boy with the consumptive mother in 'L'enfance' is entirely characteristic". After he came under Auden's influence Britten composed Our Hunting Fathers (1936), ostensibly a protest against fox-hunting but which also alludes allegorically to the contemporary political state of Europe. The work has never been popular; in 1948 the critic Colin Mason lamented its neglect and called it one of Britten's greatest works. In Mason's view the cycle is "as exciting as Les Illuminations, and offers many interesting and enjoyable foretastes of the best moments of his later works."
The first of Britten's song cycles to gain widespread popularity was Les Illuminations (1940), for high voice (originally soprano, later more often sung by tenors)[n 17] with string orchestra accompaniment, setting words by Arthur Rimbaud. Britten's music reflects the eroticism in Rimbaud's poems; Copland commented of the section "Antique" that he did not know how Britten dared to write the melody. "Antique" was dedicated to "K.H.W.S.", or Wulff Scherchen, Britten's first romantic interest. Matthews judges the piece the crowning masterpiece of Britten's early years. By the time of Britten's next cycle, Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1942) for tenor and piano, Pears had become his partner and muse; in Matthews's phrase, Britten wrote the cycle as "his declaration of love for Peter". It too finds the sensuality of the verses it sets, though in its structure it resembles a conventional 19th-century song cycle. Mason draws a distinction between this and Britten's earlier cycles, because here each song is self-contained, and has no thematic connection with any of the others.
The Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) sets verses by a variety of poets, all on the theme of night-time. Though Britten described the cycle as "not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think", it was immediately greeted as a masterpiece, and together with Peter Grimes it established him as one of the leading composers of his day. Mason calls it "a beautifully unified work on utterly dissimilar poems, held together by the most superficial but most effective, and therefore most suitable symphonic method. Some of the music is pure word-painting, some of it mood-painting, of the subtlest kind." Two years later, after witnessing the horrors of Belsen, Britten composed The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, a work whose bleakness was not matched until his final tenor and piano cycle a quarter of a century later. Britten's technique in this cycle ranges from atonality in the first song to firm tonality later, with a resolute B major chord at the climax of "Death, be not proud".
Nocturne (1958) is the last of the orchestral cycles. As in the Serenade, Britten set words by a range of poets, who here include Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson and Wilfred Owen. The whole cycle is darker in tone than the Serenade, with pre-echoes of the War Requiem. All the songs have subtly different orchestrations, with a prominent obbligato part for a different instrument in each. Among Britten's later song cycles with piano accompaniment is the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, composed for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This presents all its poems in a continuous stream of music; Brett writes that it "interleaves a ritornello-like setting of the seven proverbs with seven songs that paint an increasingly sombre picture of human existence." A Pushkin cycle, The Poet's Echo (1965), was written for Galina Vishnevskaya, and shows a more robust and extrovert side of the composer. Though written ostensibly in the tradition of European song cycles, it draws atmospherically on the polyphony of south-east Asian music. Who Are These Children? (1969), setting 12 verses by William Soutar, is among the grimmest of Britten's cycles. After he could no longer play the piano, Britten composed a cycle of Robert Burns settings, A Birthday Hansel (1976), for voice and harp.
Other vocal works
Nicholas Maw said of Britten's vocal music: "His feeling for poetry (not only English) and the inflexions of language make him, I think, the greatest musical realizer of English". One of the best-known works in which Britten set poetry was the War Requiem (1962). It intersperses the Latin requiem mass, sung by soprano and chorus, with settings of works by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, sung by tenor and baritone. At the end the two elements are combined, as the last line of Owen's "Strange meeting" mingles with the In paradisum of the mass. Matthews describes the conclusion of the work as "a great wave of benediction [which] recalls the end of the Sinfonia da Requiem, and its similar ebbing away into the sea that symbolises both reconciliation and death." The same year, he composed A Hymn of St Columba for choir and organ, setting a poem by the 6th-century saint. Other works for voices and orchestra include the Missa Brevis and the Cantata academica (both 1959) on religious themes, Children's Crusade to a text by Bertolt Brecht about a group of children in wartime Poland, to be performed by children (1969), and the late cantata Phaedra (1975), a story of fated love and death modelled on Handel's Italian cantatas.
Smaller-scale works for accompanied voice include the five Canticles, composed between 1947 and 1974. They are written for a variety of voices (tenor in all five; counter-tenor or alto in II and IV and baritone in IV) and accompaniments (piano in I to IV, horn in III and harp in V). The first is a setting of Francis Quarles's 17th-century poem "A Divine Rapture", and according to Britten was modelled on Purcell's Divine Hymns. Matthews describes it as one of the composer's most serene works, which "ends in a mood of untroubled happiness that would soon become rare in Britten's music". The second Canticle was written in 1952, between Billy Budd and Gloriana, on the theme of Abraham's obedience to Divine Authority in the proffered sacrifice of his son Isaac. [n 18] "Canticle III" from 1954 is a setting of Edith Sitwell's wartime poem "Still Falls the Rain", composed just after The Turn of the Screw with which it is structurally and stylistically associated. The twelve-note cycle in the first five bars of the piano part of the Canticle introduced a feature that became thereafter a regular part of Britten's compositional technique. The fourth Canticle, premiered in 1971 is based on T. S. Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi". It is musically close to The Burning Fiery Furnace of 1966; Matthews refers to it as a "companion piece" to the earlier work. The final Canticle was another Eliot setting, his juvenile poem "Death of Saint Narcissus". Although Britten had little idea of what the poem was about, the musicologist Arnold Whittall finds the text "almost frighteningly apt ... for a composer conscious of his own sickness". Matthews sees Narcissus as "another figure from [Britten's] magic world of dreams and ideal beauty".
The Britten scholar Donald Mitchell has written, "It is easy, because of the scope, stature, and sheer volume of the operas, and the wealth of vocal music of all kinds, to pay insufficient attention to the many works Britten wrote in other, specifically non-vocal genres." Maw said of Britten, "He is one of the 20th century's great orchestral composers ... His orchestration has an individuality, incisiveness and integration with the musical material only achieved by the greatest composers." Among Britten's best-known orchestral works are the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), the Four Sea Interludes (1945) and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945). The Variations, an affectionate tribute to Britten's teacher, range from comic parodies of Italian operatic clichés and Viennese waltzes to a strutting march, reflecting the rise of militarism in Europe, and a Mahlerian funeral march; the piece ends with an exuberant fugal finale. The Sinfonia moves from an opening Lacrymosa filled with fear and lamentation to a fierce Dies irae and then to a final Requiem aeternam, described by the critic Herbert Glass as "the most uneasy 'eternal rest' possible". Mason considers the Sinfonia a failure: "less entertaining than usual, because its object is not principally to entertain but to express symphonically. It fails because it is neither picturesquely nor formally symphonic". The Sea Interludes, adapted by Britten from the full score of Peter Grimes, make a concert suite depicting the sea and the Borough in which the opera is set; the character of the music is strongly contrasted between "Dawn", "Sunday Morning", "Moonlight" and "Storm". The commentator Howard Posner observes that there is not a bar in the interludes, no matter how beautiful, that is free of foreboding. The Young Person's Guide, based on a theme by Purcell, showcases the orchestra's individual sections and groups, and gained widespread popularity from the outset. Christopher Headington calls the work "exuberant and uncomplicated music, scored with clarity and vigour [that] fits well into Britten's oeuvre." David Matthews calls it "a brilliant educational exercise."[n 19]
Unlike his English predecessors such as Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and composers from mainland Europe whom he admired, including Mahler and Shostakovich, Britten was not a classical symphonist. His youthful jeux d'esprit the Simple Symphony (1934) is in conventional symphonic structure, observing sonata form and the traditional four-movement pattern, but of his mature works his Spring Symphony (1949) is more a song cycle than a true symphony, and the concertante Cello Symphony (1963) is an attempt to balance the traditional concerto and symphony. During its four movements the Cello Symphony moves from a deeply pessimistic opening to a finale of radiant happiness rare for Britten by this point. The composer considered it "the finest thing I've written".
The Piano Concerto (1938) was at first criticised for being too light-hearted and virtuoso. In 1945 Britten revised it, replacing a skittish third movement with a more sombre passacaglia that, in Matthews's view, gives the work more depth, and makes the apparent triumph of the finale more ambivalent. The Violin Concerto (1939), finished in the first weeks of the World War, has virtuoso elements, but they are balanced by lyrical and elegiac passages, "undoubtedly reflecting Britten's growing concern with the escalation of world hostilities." Neither concerto is among Britten's most popular works, but in the 21st century the Violin Concerto, which is technically difficult, has been performed more frequently than before, both in the concert hall and on record, and has enthusiastic performers and advocates, notably violinist Janine Jansen.
Britten's incidental music for theatre, film and radio, much of it unpublished, was the subject of an essay by William Mann, published in 1952 in the first detailed critical assessment of Britten's music to that date. Of these pieces the music for a radio play, The Rescue, by Edward Sackville-West, is praised by the musicologist Lewis Foreman as "of such stature and individual character as to be worth a regular place alongside [Britten's] other dramatic scores." Mann finds in this score pre-echoes of the second act of Billy Budd, while Foreman observes that Britten "appears to have made passing allusions to The Rescue in his final opera, Death in Venice.
Chamber and instrumental works
Britten's close friendship with Rostropovich inspired the Cello Sonata (1961) and three suites for solo cello (1964–71). String quartets featured throughout Britten's composing career, from a student work in 1928 to his Third String Quartet (1975). The Second Quartet, from 1945, was written in homage to Purcell; Mason considered it Britten's most important instrumental work to that date. Referring to this work, Keller writes of the ease with which Britten, relatively early in his compositional career, solves "the modern sonata problem – the achievement of symmetry and unity within an extended ternary circle based on more than one subject". Keller likens the innovatory skill of the Quartet to that of Walton's Viola Concerto. The third Quartet was Britten's last major work; the critic Colin Anderson said of it in 2007, "one of Britten's greatest achievements, one with interesting allusions to Bartók and Shostakovich, and written with an economy that opens out a depth of emotion that can be quite chilling. The Gemini Variations (1965), for flute, violin and piano duet, were based on a theme of Zoltán Kodály and written as a virtuoso piece for the 13-year-old Jeney twins, musical prodigies whom Britten had met in Budapest in the previous year. For Osian Ellis, Britten wrote the Suite for Harp (1969), which Joan Chissell in The Times described as "a little masterpiece of concentrated fancy". Nocturnal after John Dowland (1963) for solo guitar was written for Julian Bream and has been praised by Benjamin Dwyer for its "semantic complexity, prolonged musical argument, and philosophical depth".
Britten's fellow-composers had divided views about him. To Tippett he was "simply the most musical person I have ever met", with an "incredible" technical mastery; some contemporaries, however, were less effusive. In Tippett's view, Walton and others were convinced that Britten and Pears were leaders of a homosexual conspiracy in music,[n 20] a belief Tippett dismisses as ridiculous, inspired by jealousy of Britten's postwar successes. Leonard Bernstein considered Britten "a man at odds with the world", and said of his music: "[I]f you hear it, not just listen to it superficially, you become aware of something very dark". The tenor Robert Tear, who was closely associated with Britten in the latter part of the composer's career, made a similar point: "There was a great, huge abyss in his soul ... He got into the valley of the shadow of death and couldn't get out".
In the decade after Britten's death, his standing as a composer in Britain was to some extent overshadowed by that of the still-living Tippett. The film-maker Tony Palmer thought that Tippett's temporary ascendancy might have been a question of the two composers' contrasting personalities: Tippett had more warmth and had made fewer enemies. In any event this was a short-lived phenomenon; Tippett adherents such as the composer Robert Saxton soon rediscovered their enthusiasm for Britten, whose audience steadily increased during the final years of the 20th century. Britten has had few imitators; Brett describes him as "inimitable, possessed of ... a voice and sound too dangerous to imitate". Nevertheless, after his death Britten was lauded by the younger generation of English composers to whom, in the words of Oliver Knussen, he became "a phenomenal father-figure". Brett believes that he affected every subsequent British composer to some extent: "He is a key figure in the growth of British musical culture in the second half of the 20th century, and his effect on everything from opera to the revitalization of music education is hard to overestimate."
Whittall believes that one reason for Britten's enduring popularity is the "progressive conservatism" of his music. He generally avoided the avant garde, and did not challenge the conventions in the way that contemporaries such as Tippett did. Perhaps, says Brett, "the tide that swept away serialism, atonality and most forms of musical modernism and brought in neo-Romanticism, minimalism and other modes of expression involved with tonality carried with it renewed interest in composers who had been out of step with the times". Britten defined his mission as a composer in very simple terms: composers should aim at "pleasing people today as seriously as we can".
Pianist and conductor
Britten, though a reluctant conductor and a nervous pianist, was greatly sought after in both capacities. The piano accompanist Gerald Moore wrote in his memoirs about playing at all the main music festivals except for Aldeburgh, because "as the presiding genius there is the greatest accompanist in the world, my services are not needed".[n 21] Britten's recital partnership with Pears was his best-known collaboration, but he also accompanied Kathleen Ferrier, Rostropovich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, James Bowman and John Shirley-Quirk, among others. Though usually too nervous to play piano solos, Britten often performed piano duets with Clifford Curzon or Richter, and chamber music with the Amadeus Quartet. The composers whose works, other than his own, he most often played were Mozart and Schubert; the latter, in Murray Perahia's view, was Britten's greatest idol. As a boy and young man, Britten had intensely admired Brahms, but his admiration waned to nothing, and Brahms seldom featured in his repertory.[n 22]
Singers and players admired Britten's conducting, and David Webster rated it highly enough to offer him the musical directorship of the Covent Garden Opera in 1952.[n 23] Britten declined; he was not confident of his ability as a conductor and was reluctant to spend too much time performing rather than composing. As a conductor, Britten's repertory included Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, and occasional less characteristic choices including Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust; Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Introduction and Allegro; Holst's Egdon Heath and short pieces by Percy Grainger.
Britten, like Elgar and Walton before him, was signed up by a major British recording company,[n 24] and performed a considerable proportion of his output on disc. For the Decca Record Company he made some monaural records in the 1940s and 1950s, followed, with the enthusiastic support of the Decca producer John Culshaw, by numerous stereophonic versions of his works. Culshaw wrote, "The happiest hours I have spent in any studio were with Ben, for the basic reason that it did not seem that we were trying to make records or video tapes; we were just trying to make music."[n 25]
In May 1943 Britten made his debut in the Decca studios, accompanying Sophie Wyss in five of his arrangements of French folk songs. The following January he and Pears recorded together, in Britten's arrangements of British folk songs, and the following day, in duet with Curzon he recorded his Introduction and Rondo alla burlesca and Mazurka elegiaca. In May 1944 he conducted the Boyd Neel string orchestra, Dennis Brain and Pears in the first recording of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, which has frequently been reissued, most recently on CD.
Britten's first operatic recording was The Turn of the Screw, made in January 1955 with the original English Opera Group forces. In 1957 he conducted The Prince of the Pagodas in an early stereo recording, supervised by Culshaw. Decca's first major commercial success with Britten came the following year, with Peter Grimes, which has, at 2013, never been out of the catalogues since its first release. From 1958 Britten conducted Decca recordings of many of his operas and vocal and orchestral works, including the Nocturne (1959), the Spring Symphony (1960) and the War Requiem (1963). The last sold in unexpectedly large numbers for a classical set, and thereafter Decca unstintingly made resources available to Culshaw and his successors for Britten recordings. Sets followed of Albert Herring (1964), the Sinfonia da Requiem (1964), Curlew River (1965), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1966), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1967), Billy Budd (1967) and many of the other major works. In 2013, to mark the anniversary of Britten's birth, Decca released a set of 65 CDs and one DVD, "Benjamin Britten – Complete Works".[n 26] Most of the recordings were from Decca's back catalogue, but in the interests of comprehensiveness a substantial number of tracks were licensed from 20 other companies including EMI, Virgin Classics, Naxos, Warner and NMC.
As a pianist and conductor in other composers' music, Britten made many recordings for Decca. Among his studio collaborations with Pears are sets of Schubert's Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, Schumann's Dichterliebe, and songs by Haydn, Mozart, Bridge, Ireland, Holst, Tippett and Richard Rodney Bennett. Other soloists whom Britten accompanied on record were Ferrier, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. As a conductor he recorded a wide range of composers, from Purcell to Grainger. Among his best-known Decca recordings are Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Cantata 151, Cantata 102 and St John Passion, Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Mozart's last two symphonies.
Honours, awards and commemorations
State honours awarded to Britten included Companion of Honour (Britain) in 1953; Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden) in 1962; the Order of Merit (Britain) in 1965; and a life peerage (Britain) in July 1976, as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. He received honorary degrees and fellowships from 19 conservatories and universities in Europe and America. His awards included the Hanseatic Goethe Prize (1961); the Aspen Award, Colorado (1964); the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal (1964); the Wihuri Sibelius Prize (1965); the Mahler Medal (Bruckner and Mahler Society of America, 1967); the Léonie Sonning Music Prize (Denmark, 1968); the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (1974); and the Ravel Prize (1974). Prizes for individual works included UNESCO's International Rostrum of Composers 1961 for A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Grammy Awards in 1963 and 1977 for the War Requiem.
The Red House, Aldeburgh, where Britten and Pears lived and worked together from 1957 until Britten's death in 1976, is now the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation, established to promote their musical legacy. In Britten's centenary year his studio at the Red House was restored to the way it was in the 1950s and opened to the public. The converted hayloft was designed and built by H T Cadbury Brown in 1958 and was described by Britten as a "magnificent work". In June 2013 Dame Janet Baker officially opened the Britten-Pears archive in a new building in the grounds of the Red House. The Benjamin Britten Music Academy in Lowestoft, founded in the composer's honour, was completed in 1979; it is an 11–18 co-educational day school, with ties to the Britten-Pears Foundation.
A memorial stone to Britten was unveiled in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey in 1978. 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.
Other creative artists have celebrated Britten. In 1970 Walton composed Improvisations on an Impromptu of Benjamin Britten, based on a theme from Britten's Piano Concerto. Works commemorating Britten include Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten an orchestral piece written in 1977 by Arvo Pärt, and Sally Beamish's Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, based on the second Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes; she composed the work to mark Britten's centenary. Alan Bennett depicts Britten in a 2009 play The Habit of Art, set while Britten is composing Death in Venice and centred on a fictional meeting between Britten and Auden. Britten was played in the premiere production by Alex Jennings.
In 2019, Britten's War Requiem was selected by the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant".
In September 2012, to mark the composer's forthcoming centenary, the Britten-Pears Foundation launched "Britten 100", a collaboration of leading organisations in the performing arts, publishing, broadcasting, film, academia and heritage. Among the events were the release of a feature film Benjamin Britten – Peace and Conflict, and a centenary exhibition at the British Library. The Royal Mint issued a 50-pence piece, to mark the centenary – the first time a composer has featured on a British coin.
Centenary performances of the War Requiem were given at eighteen locations in Britain. Opera productions included Owen Wingrave at Aldeburgh, Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, Death in Venice by English National Opera, Gloriana by The Royal Opera, and Peter Grimes, Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's Dream by Opera North. Peter Grimes was performed on the beach at Aldeburgh, opening the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival in June 2013, with Steuart Bedford conducting and singers from the Chorus of Opera North and the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, described by The Guardian as "a remarkable, and surely unrepeatable achievement."
Internationally, the anniversary was marked by performances of the War Requiem, Peter Grimes and other works in four continents. In the US the centennial events were described as "coast to coast", with a Britten festival at Carnegie Hall, and performances at the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
Notes, references and sources
- Britten's siblings were (Edith) Barbara (1902–82), Robert Harry Marsh ("Bobby", 1907–87), and (Charlotte) Elizabeth ("Beth", 1909–89).
- Britten later gave an example of the detailed skill instilled in him by Bridge: "I came up with a series of major sevenths on the violin. Bridge was against this, saying that the instrument didn't vibrate properly with this interval: it should be divided between two instruments".
- When it came to leaving Gresham's, Britten found it a wrench, confessing: "I am terribly sorry to leave such boys as these. [...] I didn't think I should be so sorry to leave." In his later years, Britten helped secure a place at the school for David Hemmings,
- This academic mistrust of Britten's technical skills persisted. In 1994 the critic Derrick Puffett wrote that in the 1960s Britten was still regarded with suspicion on account of his technical expertise; Puffett quoted remarks by the Professor of Music at Oxford in the 1960s, Sir Jack Westrup, to the effect that Britten was to be distrusted for his "superficial effects", whereas Tippett was considered "awkward and technically unskilled but somehow authentic."
- Britten later wrote about his youthful discovery of Mahler that he had been told that the composer was "long-winded and formless ... a romantic self-indulgent, who was so infatuated with his ideas that he could never stop. Either he couldn't score at all, or he could only score like Wagner, using enormous orchestras with so much going on that you couldn't hear anything clearly. Above all, he was not original. In other words, nothing for a young student!" Britten judged, on the contrary, "His influence on contemporary writing ... could only be beneficial. His style is free from excessive personal mannerisms, and his scores are models of how the modern virtuoso orchestra should be used, nothing being left to chance and every note sounding."
- Koussevitzky's generosity later extended to waiving his rights to mount the first production, allowing Britten and his Sadler's Wells associates the chance to do so. The opera's first performance under Koussevitzky's aegis was at the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1947, conducted by the young Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein retained a love of the work, and he conducted the orchestral "Sea Interludes" from the opera at his final concert, given in Tanglewood in 1990, shortly before his death.
- Sadler's Wells Theatre in Islington, London, was requisitioned by the government in 1942 as a refuge for people made homeless by air-raids; the Sadler's Wells opera company toured the British provinces, returning to its home base in June 1945.
- Sullivan, Parry, Stanford, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Tippett were among the leading British composers of their time who held posts at conservatoires or universities. Those who, like Britten, were not known for teaching included Delius and Walton.
- The critic Andrew Porter wrote at the time: "The audience naturally contained many people distinguished in political and social spheres rather than noted for their appreciation of twentieth-century music, and Gloriana was not well received at its first hearing. The usual philistine charges brought against it, as against so much contemporary music ('no tunes – ugly, discordant sounds', and the rest), are beneath consideration. On the other hand, those who found Gloriana ill-suited to the occasion may be allowed to have some right on their side."
- The principal law against homosexual acts was the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, in which Section 11 made any kind of sexual activity between men illegal for the first time. It was not repealed until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967
- Some writers have supposed that Britten was earlier offered and had declined a knighthood, but his name is not included in the official list issued in 2012 by the Cabinet Office naming everyone (except those still living at the time of publication) who had declined an honour between 1950 and 1999.
- The filmmaker John Bridcut sees significance in evidence that Britten mentally regarded himself as perpetually 13 years old. Bridcut views this as manifest both in the Letts diaries Britten bought and used well into his adult life, in which he wrote several statistics relevant to himself when that age, and in his remark to Imogen Holst, "I'm still thirteen".
- In the early 1940s, while living in North America, Britten shared a room with 13 year old Bobby Rothman when staying with the Rothman family: "many an evening we used to spend ... a lot of time just really talking he in the bed next to me ... His fondness for me was something that was beyond my normal social connections, and I was a little overwhelmed that someone should be so fond of me ... I can still remember us talking late at night one time, and finding when it was really time to call it quits and go to sleep ... he said, 'Bobby, would you mind terribly if, before we fell asleep, I came over and gave you a hug and a kiss?' It was just one of those touching moments ... And I've got to say I really did not know what to do except say, 'no, no I don't mind', and he gently got up and gave me a gentle hug and kiss and said goodnight."</ref>
- The journalist Martin Kettle wrote in 2012 that although there is no evidence of wrongful conduct, it is important that allegations of paedophilia should be openly discussed, both to avoid covering up criminal behaviour and to avoid oversimplifying the complexity of Britten's sexuality and creativity.
- In 1938, Britten attended what was only the second British performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand", with Sir Henry Wood and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Britten declared himself "tremendously impressed" by the music, though he thought the performance "execrable".
- The critics' outrage at the presumption of Auden and Britten in writing an American work mirrored the hostile response of London critics six years earlier when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein presented Three Sisters, a musical set in England.</ref>
- Matthews comments that the work is "so much more sensuous when sung by the soprano voice for which the songs were conceived".
- The piece was much admired by Tippett as "one of the wonderful things in Britten's music", an opinion with which Britten apparently concurred.
- The piece is formally sub-titled "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell"; Britten greatly disliked the BBC's practice of referring to the work by the grander sub-title in preference to his preferred title.
- Steuart Wilson, a retired singer who held a succession of posts as a musical administrator, launched an outspoken campaign in 1955 against "homosexuality in British music" and was quoted as saying: "The influence of perverts in the world of music has grown beyond all measure. If it is not curbed soon, Covent Garden and other precious musical heritages could suffer irreparable harm."
- In 2006 Gramophone magazine invited eminent present-day accompanists to name their "professional's professional": the joint winners were Britten and Moore.
- Britten once said, "It's not bad Brahms I mind, it's good Brahms I can't stand".
- So writes John Bridcut, but Webster's biographer, Montague Haltrecht, recounts that no formal offer of the post was made to Britten. According to Haltrecht, Lord Harewood and other Covent Garden board members wanted Britten for the post, but Webster believed that it was above all as a composer that Britten could bring glory to Covent Garden.
- Elgar was an exclusive HMV artist; Walton, after a brief spell with Decca, made most of his recordings for Columbia.
- Imogen Holst remembered Britten's recording sessions differently: "He used to find recording sessions more exhausting than anything else, and dreaded the days when he had to stop writing a new opera in order to record the one before last."
- The set comprises all the composer's works with opus numbers and all works commercially recorded by 2013 (many fragments and juvenilia have not been published or recorded). The set includes Britten's folksong arrangements, but excludes his Purcell realisations.
- Matthews 2013, p. 1.
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- Powell 2013, p. 5.
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- Carpenter 1992, p. 10.
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- Britten, Benjamin. Notes to Decca LP LW 5162 (1956), reproduced in Britten 1991, p. 9
- Carpenter 1992, pp. 13–14.
- Lara Feigel, Alexandra Harris eds, Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside; accessed 3 September 2013
- Matthews 2013, p. 8
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- Quoted in Carpenter 1992, p. 17
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... he continued to be sexually attracted to adolescent boys, though the relationships were platonic according to his biographers.
- Johnson, Stephen (1 October 2006). "Review: Britten's Children by John Bridcut". Tempo. 60 (238): 51. doi:10.1017/S0040298206210325. JSTOR 3878655.
... numerous embraces and chaste kisses, and even chaster bed-sharing, but beyond that, nothing.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Benjamin Britten.|
- Britten-Pears Foundation
- Britten 100 (Britten-Pears Foundation's website for the Britten centenary)
- Aldeburgh Music (The organisation founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948, originally as Aldeburgh Festival: the living legacy of Britten's vision for a festival and creative campus)
- "Discovering Britten". BBC Radio 3.
- Gresham College: "Britten and Bridge", lecture and performance investigating the relation between the two composers, 5 February 2008 (available for download as text, audio or video file)
- Britten Thematic Catalogue, Britten Project
- Boosey & Hawkes (Britten's publishers up to 1963): biographies, work lists and descriptions, recordings, performance schedules
- Faber Music (Publisher set up by Britten for his works after 1963): biography, work lists, recordings, performance schedules
- MusicWeb International. Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), by Rob Barnett
- National Portrait Gallery. Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten (1913–1976), 109 portraits.