Benjamin Britten

One of the central figures of British classical music from the 20th century, Edward Benjamin Britten was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. With wide-ranging interests as a composer, he amassed a large repertoire in varying genres, including orchestral and choral compositions and music for children and amateur musicians.

Born in Suffolk as the youngest of four children, Britten’s mother was an amateur musician who taught him his first lessons in notation and piano. From a young age, his talent was prevalent. His first compositional attempts came around the age of 5, and he continued to write throughout his childhood. He continued his piano studies at a pre-prep school and began studying viola at the age of 10.

Upon hearing the works of Frank Bridge, Britten was mesmerized. His viola teacher was an acquaintance of the composer’s and arranged for an introduction. Once Bridge examined Britten’s works, he agreed to teach him as a composition student, and their first lesson was shortly before Britten’s 14th birthday.

He went on to study at the Royal College of Music from 1930-33 with John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin. During these years in London, he was exposed to the music of Mahler, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky.

Britten had written close to 800 works in his adolescence preceding any published compositions. Public interest was first generated with an a capella work written in 1934. Approached by a director in 1935, he wrote his first film score and met colleagues who would collaborate with him on subsequent projects in the medium.

One of the largest events in Britten’s life occurred in 1937, when he met tenor Peter Pears. Pears became an inspiration and musical collaborator, and the two were life partners. Showing appreciation to his former teacher, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge debuted that same year.

Pears and Britten travelled to America in 1939, where Britten became greatly influenced by Aaron Copland. The compositions written during his time in America included an impressive number of orchestral works, including the famous Violin Concerto. After a three-year stay, the pair returned back to England.

His opera Peter Grimes premiered in 1945 and resulted in international fame. Over the next decade and a half, most of his compositional focus was on opera. After receiving opposition to his music from parts of England, Britten gradually removed himself from the London musical scene and founded the English Opera Group in 1947, primarily to perform his own works.

During the 1960s, Britten became friends with Shostakovich and Rostropovich, and would go on to compose pieces dedicated to them. Britten conducted the first Western performance of Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony.

In his last decade of life, Britten saw a consistent deterioration in his health, which took a toll on his musical output. As his illness worsened, his compositions became sparse and thin in texture.

Though he had declined a knighthood previously, Britten accepted a life peerage in 1976 and became known as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. Shortly after accepting the title, he died in his home of heart failure. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church, and the grave of his partner, Sir Peter Pears, lies next to his.

Making conscious effort to set himself apart for other mainstream English composers, he was distrusted by contemporary critics because his admiration for the works of Mahler and Berg were regarded as inappropriate models. However, he is still regarded as one of the greatest composers during the 20th century.  With a total published output of around 200 works, his operas are staples in the international repertoire, and his church music still holds considerable popularity. Britten’s technique and the originality he mixed with musical forms are examples of his innovative writing that place him in the forefront of composers of his generation.

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