Personalities | (Lord) Benjamin Britten | Modern Era | Classical

English composer

The finest English composer of his generation, Britten reacted against the folksong-derived pastoralism of his elder compatriots, finding inspiration in Purcell and influences as various as Mahler and Stravinsky.

The international success of his opera Peter Grimes (1945) brought financial security, but he continued to appear as a pianist, accompanying his partner and outstanding interpreter, the tenor Peter Pears, and as conductor. He both founded and actively directed the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk (spending most of his adult life nearby in Aldeburgh), and at a very early age began composing with such promise that at 13 he was accepted by Frank Bridge (1879–1941) as his only pupil. After leaving the Royal College of Music at 21, he made his living by writing music for documentary films, soon attracting attention as a composer of outstanding gifts but also, in the view of some British critics of the time, of shallow cleverness and dangerous responsiveness to European modernism. In 1939, he left England for the US, where his lifelong relationship with Pears began.

Maturity and Homesickness

In the US, Britten wrote his first work for full orchestra without voices, the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), conceived as a memorial to his parents and as a vision of the war that had already begun. He also wrote his first work for Pears, the virtuoso, Italianate Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), and his first stage work, Paul Bunyan (1941). A chance encounter with the poetry of George Crabbe, born in Aldeburgh in 1754, both filled him with nostalgia for his native Suffolk and provided him with the subject for his first true opera, Peter Grimes (1945).

Chamber Opera

Britten and Pears returned to England, settling in Aldeburgh, and Peter Grimes was performed as soon as World War II ended, to public, critical and soon international acclaim. Several of his subsequent operas, however, were written for chamber forces, and to perform them he founded the English Opera Group, a small company capable of touring to places where opera could not otherwise be performed.

Britten’s chamber operas use an orchestra of a dozen or so in which every player is a soloist. Apart from the advantage in terms of touring, chamber opera has great intimacy, giving directness to the genial comedy of Albert Herring (1947), poignancy to the heroine of The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and a nightmare intensity to The Turn of the Screw (1954). Individual instruments play an important role in sketching landscape, mood and character. As a further development of chamber opera, Britten devised the ‘church parable’, influenced by medieval mystery plays and by Japanese drama, in which all the musicians (including the instrumentalists) appear as monks, entering and leaving in procession.

A Gift for Opera

The formative influences on Britten’s vocal style were Henry Purcell (1659–95) and the experience of working with Peter Pears. From Purcell, much of whose music he transcribed...

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