Benjamin Britten (Composer)|
Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, OM CH (November 22, 1913 Lowestoft, Suffolk - December 4, 1976 Aldeburgh, Suffolk) was a British composer, conductor, and pianist.
Britten was born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, the son of a dentist and a talented amateur musician. His birthday, November 22, is the feast-day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and he showed musical gifts very early in life. He began composing prolifically as a child, and was educated at Gresham‘s School. In 1927, he began private lessons with Frank Bridge. He also studied, less happily, at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland and with some input from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although ultimately held back by his parents (at the suggestion of College staff), Britten had also intended to study with Alban Berg in Vienna. His first compositions to attract wide attention were the Sinfonietta (Op.1) and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1934 for the BBC Singers. The following year he met W. H. Auden with whom he collaborated on the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers, radical both in politics and musical treatment, and other works. Of more lasting importance was his meeting in 1936 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his partner.
In early 1939, the two of them followed Auden to America. There Britten composed Paul Bunyan, his first opera (to a libretto by Auden), as well as the first of many song cycles for Pears; the period was otherwise remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (written in 1937 for string orchestra), the Violin Concerto, and Sinfonia da Requiem (for full orchestra).
Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942, Britten completing the choral works Hymn to Saint Cecilia (his last collaboration with Auden) and A Ceremony of Carols during the long sea voyage. He had already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes, and its premiere at Sadler‘s Wells in 1945 was his greatest success so far. However, Britten was encountering opposition from sectors of the English musical establishment and gradually withdrew from the London scene, founding the English Opera Group in 1947 and the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, partly (though not solely) to perform his own works.
Grimes marked the start of a series of English operas, of which Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were particularly admired. These operas share common themes, with that of the ‘outsider‘ particularly prevalent. Most feature such a character, excluded or misunderstood by society; often this is the protagonist, such as Peter Grimes and Owen Wingrave in their eponymous operas. An increasingly important influence was the music of the East, an interest fostered by a tour with Pears in 1957, when Britten was much struck by the music of the Balinese gamelan and by Japanese Noh plays. The fruits of this tour include the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and the series of semi-operatic "Parables for Church Performance": Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). The greatest success of Britten‘s career was, however, the musically more conventional War Requiem, written for the opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
Britten developed close friendships with Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1960s, composing his Cello Suites for the latter and conducting the first Western performance of the former‘s Fourteenth Symphony; Shostakovich dedicated the score to Britten and often spoke very highly of his music. Britten himself had previously dedicated ‘The Prodigal Son‘ (the third and last of the ‘Church Parables‘) to Shostakovich.
In the last decade or so of his life, Britten suffered from increasing ill-health and his late works became progressively more sparse in texture. They include the opera Death in Venice (1973), the Suite on English Folk Tunes "A Time There Was" and Third String Quartet (1975), which drew on material from Death in Venice, as well as the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1976), written for Janet Baker. Having previously refused a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage on 2 July 1976 as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. A few months later he died of heart failure at his house in Aldeburgh. He is buried in the churchyard there. His grave lies next to that of his partner, Peter Pears. Additionally, the grave of Imogen Holst (a close friend of Britten) can be found directly behind.
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