Benjamin Britten

(1913—1976) composer

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(b Lowestoft, 1913; d Aldeburgh, 1976).

Eng. composer, pianist, conductor. His birth on St Cecilia's Day, 22 Nov., was a happy augury for the career of one of Britain's greatest composers. Essentially a vocal composer, his operas and song‐cycles won wide int. acceptance. He never abandoned the principles of tonality and was a ‘modern’ composer who reached a mass audience and a conservative whose originality no radical would sensibly deny. He shared with his predecessors Parry, Vaughan Williams, and Holst, an intense interest in the work of amateurs and children. His brilliant gifts as a pianist and cond., coupled with the virtuoso nature of his inventiveness, also led him to compose mus. for great performers such as the cellist Rostropovich and the singers Vishnevskaya, Fischer‐Dieskau, and Janet Baker. The greatest personal influence on his mus. was his friendship with the tenor Peter Pears, for whom he comp. many operatic and vocal roles.

Britten's mus. gifts became apparent at an early stage. In sch. holidays he had lessons from Harold Samuel (pf.) and Frank Bridge (comp.); the influence of Bridge in particular was strong and lasting. Britten was at RCM 1930–3, but found mus. atmosphere uncongenial and resented official refusal to allow him to study with Berg in Vienna. Studied pf. with Benjamin and comp. with Ireland. His astonishing early works were pubd., incl. the Sinfonietta and A Boy was Born, and his song‐cycle with orch. Our Hunting Fathers (text compiled and partly written by Auden) was perf. at Norwich Fest. 1936. He worked for the G.P.O. Film Unit, writing mus. for a dozen short documentaries, the best known being Coal Face and Night Mail (both 1936). In 1937, for the Boyd Neel String Orch.'s concert at the Salzburg Fest., he wrote the Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge. He and Pears followed their friend the poet Auden to N. Amer. in 1939, staying until 1942. While in NY, f.ps. of his Vn. Conc. (1939) and Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) were given in Carnegie Hall under Barbirolli. Returning to Eng., Britten settled at Snape and Aldeburgh, Suffolk. His opera Peter Grimes was perf. at SW on 7 June 1945, a day of importance for Eng. mus. comparable with the f.p. of Elgar's Enigma Variations in June 1899. His interest in chamber opera led in 1947 to foundation of the EOG (later EMT) and his desire for a fest. rooted in Eng. village life and the work of amateurs yet capable of enticing int. performers led to the Aldeburgh Festival, first held in 1948. Thereafter his career was uneventful outwardly except for the prolific output of works of all kinds, in many of which he took part as cond. or pianist. He excelled not only in his own mus.: as an accompanist in Schubert he was second to none (Salzburg Fest. 1952, recital with Pears), he played and cond. Mozart superbly, and cond. major works by Bach, Mahler, Elgar, Schumann, and others. The Aldeburgh Fest. also featured neglected works by composers whom Britten and his colleagues deemed to deserve reappraisal. After a major heart operation in 1973 his activities were much reduced. CH 1953, OM 1965. First composer to be created life peer (Lord Britten of Aldeburgh, 1976). (Lord Berners was a hereditary peer.)


Subjects: Music.

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