A leading figure in British classical music during the 20th
century, Edward Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, the youngest
child of Robert Victor Britten, a dentist, and Edith Rhoda Hockey, a talented
amateur musician. Edith gave Benjamin his first music lessons. The young boy
showed an early aptitude for music and made his first attempts at composition
at the age of five. When he was seven years old, he began piano lessons with a
teacher at his pre-prep school, and at ten, viola lessons with Audrey Alston.
Alston was a family friend of the composer Frank Bridge.
When Britten heard Bridge's orchestral poem The
Sea in 1927, he was, in his own words, "knocked sideways." Alston arranged
a meeting with Bridge, who then took on Britten as his pupil in January 1928.
In 1930, Britten won a Composition Scholarship to the Royal College of Music
where he studied with John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin. Once in London, he
became acquainted with the music of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler and Dmitri
Shostakovich, the latter of which would be a close friend.
Britten was extremely prolific during his formative years as
a composer, producing approximately eight hundred works and fragments before
his first published compositions. His music began to attract attention
beginning in 1930 with A Hymn to the
Virgin, and later with Sinfonietta, op. 1 in 1932 and the choral variations
A Boy was Born in 1933. In April
1935, he was approached by the film director Alberto Cavalcanti to compose a
film score for the documentary The King's
Stamp. During this time, he met the poet W. H. Auden. Britten and Auden
would collaborate on several future compositions. In 1937, he met the tenor
Peter Pears, with whom he began a lifelong relationship and composed many works
In 1939, Britten, with Pears, followed Auden to the United
States where he composed his first operetta, Paul Bunyan, with a libretto by Auden. The Violin Concerto, op. 15
and Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20 also
appeared while the composer was in America. In 1942, however, with war raging
across much of the European continent, Britten and Pears returned to England.
Britten applied for recognition as a conscientious objector. He was granted
only non-combatant service in the military but eventually obtain an
unconditional exemption on appeal.
Throughout 1944, Britten worked on the opera Peter Grimes at his home in Suffolk,
which he had bought with his inheritance following the death of his mother. The
premiere of the opera took place in 1945. It surpassed all of Britten's
achievements so far and immediately thrust him onto the international stage.
After an unsuccessful collaboration with the Glyndebourne English Opera
Company, Britten and Pears, along with librettist Eric Crozier and designer
John Piper, formed the English Opera Group with the express purpose of
presenting new operas on tour. This, in turn, lead to the inspiration for the
Aldeburgh Festival, which began in June 1948 with performances of Britten's
comic opera Albert Herring and the
cantata Saint Nicolas. The Festival
was an immediate success and consistently featured new works from Britten until
the composer's death.
In 1953, Britten composed his Gloriana to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and was
also appointed a Companion of Honour in the Coronation Honours. A tour with
Pears later that decade brought Britten into contact with Balinese gamelan
music and Japanese Noh plays, both of which influenced his music. Despite the
escalating tensions of the Cold War, Britten developed close friendships with
some of Russia's leading musical figures. He composed his Cello Suites, Cello
Symphony and Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich and dedicated The Prodigal Son
to Dmitri Shostakovich.
In his final years, Britten's health began to
take a turn for the worse. An operation in 1973 left him partially disabled and
ended his career as a performer and conductor. He continued to compose,
however, though his music became increasingly sparse in texture. On July 2,
1976, he became the first composer to be honored with a life peerage, as Baron
Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. Yet, his health continued to
deteriorate and in November of that year he ceased to compose. On December 4,
1976 he died of congestive heart failure at his home.
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