Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten (November 22, 1913 – December 4, 1976) was a British composer and pianist.
Britten was born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, the son of a dentist and a talented amateur musician. He began composing prolifically as a child, and in 1927 began private lessons with Frank Bridge. He also studied, less happily, at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland and others. His first composition to attract wide attention was the 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. More lastingly important was his meeting in 1936 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his life partner and musical collaborator. In early 1939 the two of them followed Auden to America. Here Britten composed his first opera to Auden's libretto and the first of many song-cycles for Pears; the period was otherwise remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including concertos for piano and violin, and the Sinfonia da Requiem.
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. Britten was however 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 showcase 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. The role of Miles in the last named was created by the twelve-year-old David Hemmings with whom Britten, always drawn to young boys, became infatuated. The use of the boy's voice as a symbol at once of innocence and temptation is a recurring motif in Britten's music. Another 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.
In the last decade or so of his life Britten suffered from increasing ill-health and his late works are increasingly sparse in texture. They include the opera Death in Venice (1973), the Suite on English Folk Tunes 'A Time There Was' (1975) and the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1976), written for Janet Baker. Britten died of heart failure at his house in Aldeburgh, shortly after being made a life peer in 1976.
One of Britten's best known works is the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government. It has the subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, and takes a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazar as its central theme. Britten gives individual variations to each of the instruments in the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. In the original film there was a spoken commentary, but this is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.
Britten was also an accomplished pianist, and sometimes performed at the piano in chamber music or accompanying lieder. However, apart from the Piano Concerto (1938) and the Diversions for piano and orchestra (written for Paul Wittgenstein in 1940), he wrote very little music for the instrument, and in a 1963 interview for the BBC said that he thought of it as 'a background instrument'.
One of Britten's solo works that has an indisputably central place in the repertoire of its instrument is his Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar (1964). This work is typically spare in his late style, and shows the depth of his life-long admiration for Elizabethan lute songs. The theme of the work, John Dowland's Come, Heavy Sleep, emerges in complete form at the close of eight variations, each variation based on some feature, frequently transient or ornamental, of the song or its lute accompaniment.
Britten's status as one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century is now secure among professional critics. In the 1930s he made a conscious effort to set himself apart from the English musical mainstream, which he regarded as complacent, insular and amateurish. Many critics of the time, in return, distrusted his facility, cosmopolitanism and admiration for composers, such as Mahler, Berg and Stravinsky, not considered appropriate models for a young English musician. Even today, criticism of his music is apt to become entangled with consideration of his personality, politics and sexuality. The publication of Humphrey Carpenter's biography in 1992, with its revelations of Britten's often fraught personal, professional and sexual relationships, has ensured that he will remain a controversial figure. For many musicians, however, his flawless technique, broad musical and human sympathies and ability to treat the most traditional of musical forms with freshness and originality places him near the head of composers of his generation.
Selected List of Works
with words by W. H. Auden
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