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Benjamin Britten was a composer most remembered for having renewed England’s voice in Western art music. He significantly revived English opera, which took a positive turn after the success of his operatic masterpiecePeter Grimes in 1945. He also had a significant role socially, and created a legacy of outreach, ensuring that music and drama education was available to an increased number of people and he also built institutions to ensure the continuity of musical literacy and awareness. This aspect of his life tied in with his compositional style – he had a tonal language that would allow amateurs and professionals to enjoy listening to, performing and appraising his music, while rejecting the avant-garde movement as something that in his view isolated the music from the general population.
As a child, Britten learned piano with Ethel Astle, took viola lessons with Audrey Alston and through his viola teacher, met the composer Frank Bridge. By the age of 14, Britten had composed around 100 works and Bridge was so impressed with him, he persuaded Britten’s parents to allow him to travel to London for composition lessons. Britten’s String Quartet in F was one of his first substantial works, completed in 1928, followed soon after byQuatre chansons francaises, Rhapsody for string quartet and Quartettino. Each of these pieces show the influence of his teacher.
In 1937, Britten met Peter Pears , the tenor, who became a musical inspiration for Britten and his lifelong partner. In 1939 the two of them sailed to North America, first to Canada and then to New York. There were various reasons for the journey, including the increasingly unfavourable reviews of Britten’s music in the English press, the success that his teacher had achieved in the US and the hostility towards pacifists in Europe. His main compositions from this period were the Violin Concerto and the Sinfonia de Requiem. Moving to the US did not mean that Britten was completely free of harsh criticism though. The composer Virgil Thomson was relentless in his description of Britten’s Les Illuminations (1940) as ‘pretentious, banal and utterly disappointing’.
Britten became a student at the Royal College of Music in London in 1930. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and composition with John Ireland. The young composer was very opinionated about musical styles and showed hostility towards the English ‘pastoral style’ of composition and found Stravinsky’sRite of Spring bewildering and terrifying. He did however find Stravinsky’sPetruschka and Symphony of Psalms and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen not only pleasantly comprehensible but hugely inspirational. Britten was also a massive admirer of Beethoven and Brahms. Britten’s first works to gain him wide attention while still studying were: Sinfonietta, Op 1 (1932), a set of choral variationsA Boy Was Born (1933), written for the BBC singers.
In 1942, Britten and Pears decided to return to England. Before leaving America, Koussevitsky commissioned him to compose the operaPeter Grimes, which was to be based on the poem of the same name by George Crabbe. On returning, he bought a house in Snape, Suffolk and spent most of his time there in 1944, working on Peter Grimes. The opera premiered in 1945 and was a massive success, hailed by critics as a wonderful new work and its box office ratings matched or exceeded those ofLa boheme or Madama Butterfly which were running during the same season.
Britten composed his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in 1945, for an educational film calledInstruments of the Orchestra which has remained his most frequently played works ever since.
The first post-war Glyndebourne Festival took place in 1946 and Britten’s next opera,The Rape of Lucretia featured and was subsequently performed on tour to provincial English cities. Soon after, Britten and his associates set up the English Opera Group, with the purpose of producing and commissioning new English operas and other works and presenting them throughout the country and Peter Pears suggested starting a new festival at Aldeburgh.
The Aldeburgh Festival was launched in 1948, directed by Britten, Pears and the librettist Eric Crozier. Britten wrote a new opera for the festival almost every year until his death in 1976. Britten also composed Gloriana for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, which at the time was reported as seeming ‘too modern’ for a gala, but in later years came to be known as one of Britten’s finest operas.
In the 1960s, Aldeburgh was growing to huge proportions and the Snape Maltings hall was purpose built as a 830-seat opera venue, opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1967. The BBC commissioned Britten to write an opera for television andOwen Wingrave was the result, an opera based on ghost stories by Henry James. Britten’s Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata, composed for Mstislav Rostropovich were premiered at the Aldeburgh festival. One of Britten’s most famous works, the War Requiem, was premiered in 1962, which in Shostakovich’s opinion was ‘the greatest work of the twentieth century’. Shostakovich and Britten were close friends. Britten visited Russia several times andShostakovich attended Aldeburgh. The two men died within one year of each other.
In the final year of his life, Britten was given a title, the first ever English composer to become a peer, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. One of the last works he composed was Praise We Great Men, which he gave to Rostropovich on a farewell visit to the composer who knew he would lot live much longer.
Benjamin Britten, a very practical and somewhat conservative composer, succeeded over his lifetime to recreate the role of England’s leading classical composer, bringing neo-Romanticism, minimalism and other manners of expressing tonality into his compositions. It is doubtful that any subsequent British composer in the following decades was unaffected by Britten.
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