Personalities | Benjamin Britten | Modern Era | Opera

1913–76, English

Lord Edward Benjamin Britten was one of England’s most important composers. Britten was a musical ambassador who, working with a close-knit group of collaborators, helped develop a thriving and vital British opera scene. Indeed, Peter Grimes (1945) heralded a new era for British music and for the post-war performing arts in general.

A Musical Start

Born in Lowestoft, appropriately on St Cecilia’s Day (she is the patron saint of music), Britten started writing at the age of five. After being mentored by composer Frank Bridge, he attended the Royal College of Music in 1930 to study composition with John Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin. These men helped Britten to develop his compositional style, and so did long-time companion Peter Pears (1910–86), whom he first met in 1937.

Pacifism and Painful Themes

Pears was a BBC singer who also dabbled in composition, and together the self-declared pacifists left for the US in 1939, following in the footsteps of their friend W. H. Auden, with whom Britten collaborated on the American folk opera Paul Bunyan that same year. While in San Diego, Britten became enthralled with the poetry of George Crabbe, especially ‘The Borough’ and its brutish fisherman, whose apprentices die under mysterious circumstances. Isolation and pain would be recurrent themes in Britten’s life and work, and since he and Pears identified with the central character of Peter Grimes, he was inspired to return to England and set the story to music.

Chamber Opera

Following the success of Peter Grimes, Britten sought the more intimate realm of the ‘chamber opera’ and composed The Rape of Lucretia, which was produced at Glyndebourne in 1946. In addition to their dramatic and artistic merits, chamber operas were financially viable, and to that end Britten, Pears, Joan Cross and Eric Crozier founded the English Opera Group. Albert Herring (1947) was their first production, and they expanded on this success by creating the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, in the Sussex town where Britten and Pears would eventually live.

Popularization of Opera

Leading by example, Britten created interest in opera and the performing arts, and this in turn led to The Little Sweep (from Let’s Make an Opera, 1949), Noyes Fludde (‘Noah’s Flood’, 1958) and The Children’s Crusade (1969). Meanwhile, commissioned by the Royal Opera, Britten’s sequel to Peter Grimes was Billy Budd (1951). This was an instant success, yet not until the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II would Britten write his next opera, Gloriana (1953), before dramatically returning to psychological drama in the form of Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1954).

It was because the church played an important role in his life that in 1958 Britten chose to adapt Noyes Fludde from the Chester cycle of miracle plays. Then, after he and Pears turned to Shakespeare, adapting and producing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten wrote a trio of religious parables for performance at a...

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