Leading British composer of the mid-20th century, Benjamin Britten was born in Suffolk, England in 1913. An outstanding pianist and conductor, Britten’s operas were considered the finest English operas.
A child prodigy, by the age of 14 he had written over 100 works. At 15, Britten showed an extraordinary sophistication both in the choice of texts and in the handling of the orchestra in The Quatre Chansons Françaises. At 17, he was writing chamber works, such as the Quartettino for string quartet; his music was brilliant and unsentimental, and he was being regarded not only as the cleverest composer around, but also the most musical. At 20 Britten composed the set of choral variations A Boy Was Born; and then worked as a composer for the radio, theatre, and cinema.
From the age 26 to 29, he was in the United States, where his first work for the stage, the operetta Paul Bunyan was performed. His opera at the age of 32, Peter Grimes placed him in the forefront of 20th-century composers of opera.
His later operas between the ages 33 to 60 years included The Rape of Lucretia; the comic Albert Herring; Billy Budd; Gloriana; The Turn of the Screw; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Owen Wingrave ; and Death in Venice.
Britten’s largest choral work is the War Requiem for choir and orchestra, at the age of 49—which has been considered as one of the most impressive British choral. The work received phenomenal critical acclaim being variously described as: ‘disturbing’, ‘denounces barbarism’, and ‘Britten's masterpiece.’
War Requiem (excerpt)
After the War Requiem, his next public work was the Cantata Misericordium, composed for the centenary of the Red Cross, with Latin text describing the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
Besides War Requiem, Britten’s choral works include the Hymn to St. Cecilia, Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, St. Nicolas, Spring Symphony, and Voices for Today which was written for the United Nations’ 20th anniversary.
Among his notable instrumental works are the Simple Symphony for strings; three string quartets; concerti for piano and for violin; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; and Symphony in D Major for Cello and Orchestra.
In 1964 the foundation of Faber Music, of which Britten was a director till his death, was tasked with the prime purpose of taking over the publication of Britten’s music. Among its first work was Curlew River (1964) which presented a sparer, leaner style, with use of heterophony and greater rhythmic independence for the individual instruments; later being developed in two further Church Parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son (1968). Britten’s last twelve years also produced the opera Death in Venice (1973), which sums up the conflict of innocence and experience that obsessed him all his life; three cello suites for Rostropovich which are among the finest; and a noteworthy String Quartet No.3.
The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
Benjamin Britten died in 1976 due to heart problems and there is a special poignancy about the works of the final three years: they bravely confront death, whether openly, as in Phaedra (1975), or subtly, as in the last movement of the Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974).
After Britten’s death, interest in his music has grown greater, perhaps, than when he was alive. His operas have flourished in productions both traditional and avant-garde; new biographies, scholarly assessments of the works and doctoral dissertations have regularly appeared; and there have been brilliant new recordings of his works to add to his own authoritative series for Decca.
Britten was the recipient of many honours and prizes. When he was just 39 he became a ‘Companion of Honour.’ His most cherished accolade was at 52, being bestowed the ‘Order of Merit’; only twenty-four people are allowed to be members at one time. Since its creation in 1902, only two composers prior to Britten were honoured thus. Around the same time, he was awarded the ‘Gold Medal’ of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
Peter Grimes (excerpt)
At an age considered relatively young (50), 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. When he was 61, Britten won the French government's ‘Ravel Prize’; and was also made a life peer in 1976, the year of his death. No wonder, the Encyclopedia Britannica entry calls him ‘Baron Britten’--being the first musician to receive this honour.
It may be apt to end with a thought-provoking quote of Benjamin Britten: ‘It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony.’
Siddharth Kumar holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London, and conducts weekend Classical Piano classes. Siddharth is Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year MNC stint, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music.
The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author.