Britten Biographical Information

Early Life

An early picture of Britten Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, England, on November 22, 1913 - St. Cecilia's Day. His earliest exposure to music came from his mother, who was an amateur singer. He began composing his first works at the age of five, and produced prolifically throughout his childhood, despite his lack of musical guidance. When he was six, he wrote a play, "The Royal Falily" [sic]; it was about the death of Prince John, the fifth son of George V, at the age of 13 in 1919. He would compose before breakfast, to have time to go to school. As a young boy he enjoyed mathematics, and was the captain of the cricket team. When he was eleven, Britten was discovered by Frank Bridge, a composer who had recently become interested in experimental styles and the work of Bartók and Schoenberg. Bridge gave Britten a technical foundation on which to base his creativity and introduced him to a wide range of composers from many different countries.

In 1930, Britten entered the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition under Harold Samuel and Arthur Benjamin. He did not find the RCM to be very helpful; in his later years Britten remarked that he "did not learn much." This was partially because the director was Sir Hugh Allen, an associate of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was a professor there. Vaughan Williams disliked "brilliance", and "technical virtuosity for its own sake", and showed great distaste for the work of Frank Bridge.

One of Britten's first jobs was composing music for documentary films produced by the General Post Office, starting in April 1935. This gave him a good background for writing operas in the future, because of television's unconventional challenges (New Grove, p. 293). An example of this is from the music to the film Coal Face. In order to recreate the effect of a train approaching through a tunnel, Britten recorded a cymbal crash, and reversed it.

Through his work at the GPO, Britten also met W.H. Auden (4 July 1935); Britten used Auden's poetry in Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942).

Trip to America

Eventually Auden emigrated to the United States. This led Britten to make up his mind to go to America in 1939, along with his friend, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten went to the United States out of discontent; he was also a conscientious objector. Britten's anti-war feelings show quite prominently in the War Requiem.

In 1942, though, Britten decided to go back home to England. One contributing factor to this decision is said to be his reading of an article on the Suffolk poet Crabbe (New Grove, p. 293). The poem "The Borough", particulary its section about Peter Grimes, moved Britten. Later the opera Peter Grimes would be one of his most important works. During the voyage home in March, 1942, he wrote Hymn to St. Cecilia. Shortly after his return, in 1943, he composed Rejoice in the Lamb.

Another picture of Britten

War Requiem

The War Requiem was completed 20 December 1961, and first performed 30 May 1962. It was held as the most impressive British choral work since Walton's Belshazzar's Forest in 1931. The work enjoyed enormous popularity among critics. William Mann of the Times, in a preliminary article, had some typical descriptions: "disturbing", "denounces barbarism", and "Britten's masterpiece." Some critics railed against its great popularity, including Stravinsky, who was annoyed that it wasn't really allowed to be criticized, because, in criticizing it, one would "be made to feel if one had failed to stand up for 'God Save the Queen.'"

Stravinsky, however, had some reasons to be annoyed at Britten, especially after Auden reported to him that Britten liked The Rake's Progress - "everything but the music." Stravinsky followed in Britten's footsteps on a few pieces, sometimes too close; he changed the title of his original Sinfonia da Requiem to Requiem Canticles because of the existing Britten work by that name.

After the War Requiem, the Cantata Misericordium was his next "public" work, composed for the centenary of the Red Cross, with Latin text describing the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Another anti-war work of Britten's was Owen Wingrave, by Myfanwy Piper; this came after the Vietnam War and the incident at Kent State.

Later Life

A later picture of Britten Britten received many prizes and honors, including becoming a Companion of Honour in 1952, and a member of the Order of Merit in 1965. The Order of Merit was his most cherished honor; only twenty-four people are allowed to be members at one time. Since its creation in 1902 only two composers prior to Britten received this honor: Elgar in 1912, and Vaughan Williams in 1935. In 1964 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. At fifty he won the Robert O. Anderson Aspen Award in the Humanities, which was a $30,000 prize, and two citations from the New York Music Critics Circle for A Midsummer Night's Dream and the War Requiem. In 1974 he won the French government's Ravel Prize. He was also made a life peer in 1976, the year of his death; the Encyclopedia Britannica entry calls him Baron Britten. He was the first musician to receive this honor.

However, Britten was not arrogant; he stated, "People sometimes seem to think that, with a number of works now lying behind, one must be bursting with confidence. It is not so at all. I haven't achieved the simplicity I should like in my music, and I am enormously aware that I haven't yet come up to the technical standards Bridge set me."

After the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten came down with an infection, which was diagnosed as sub-acute bacterial endocarditis. This disease had killed Mahler, but Britten had the advantage of massive doses of antibiotics. The illness led to the discovery of a valvular heart-lesion, which was probably caused by rheumatic fever as a child. In 1971-72, symptoms of a heart disease recurred. For several years during the latter period of his life Britten had complained of a pain in his left arm when conducting.

During Britten's year off composing, Peter Pears wished that Britten should never lose faith in music, so he resumed composing after taking a year off. Britten desperately wanted to finish his last opera, Death in Venice. He did not want to have surgery until he had completed it. Eventually he gave in, though. In 1973, he had an operation to replace a heart valve. He had to be wheeled in on a cart to see its performance for the first time.

According to Pears, Britten had no fear of dying, and no convictions as to what followed death. He died 4 December 1976, in Aldeburgh.

Important People

(picture of Pears, Britten, and Culshaw)
Peter Pears, Britten, and John Culshaw (a producer from Decca Records).

Major Works