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Benjamin Britten

When Benjamin Britten died on December 4, 1976, apparently he was worried that he would be forgotten.   It is clear that this fear was unwarranted: Britten’s compositions in all genres remain in the canon.  In particular his operatic legacy is a lasting one. His works in this area have proven to be among the most enduring English-language operas in history, revived time and again worldwide.

A Talented Youth

Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk (in the United Kingdom), on November 22, 1913.  It is often noted that the composer came into the world on St. Cecilia’s Day, a holiday dedicated to the patron saint of music.  His father Robert worked as a dentist, but his mother, Edith, was an active local singer and pianist who carefully guided Britten’s musical education.  She recognized her son’s talent and interest in music early on, encouraging him to pursue ambitious career goals.  Edith gave Britten his first music lessons, both in piano and notation, and as a small child he wrote down numerous, if brief, topical compositions relating to family events.  Perhaps inspired by his mother’s voice, he also wrote songs.  By the age of ten, he was a skilled pianist and composer, and that year he commenced viola lessons as well.  His viola instructor introduced her young student to Frank Bridge, a noted English composer whose orchestral and chamber works are still widely performed today. 

When Britten began his studies with Bridge in London, he was fourteen years old and had already completed one hundred works.  Composition lessons with Bridge instilled in Britten a lifelong attention to compositional form and technique, and they also inspired Britten to adhere to his own personal style.  Early works completed under Bridge’s supervision include Britten’s String Quartet in F, and an orchestrated song cycle, Quatre chansons françaises (both written in 1928).

An unhappy two years at public school (1928-1930), away from home and at the mercy of an unsupportive school music teacher, did not deter Britten from his compositional path.  He kept up his lessons with Bridge and produced works including Rhapsody for string quartet, as well as music for viola and his Hymn to the Virgin for double chorus (1930).  Upon the completion of his public school education, Britten was accepted at the Royal College of Music on the merits of several works including the Hymn to the Virgin and a solo vocal work called The Birds (1929, revised 1934).

Entering college in 1930, Britten studied with the distinguished composer John Ireland.  Unfortunately, the teacher-student relationship was fraught with tension.  In spite of these difficulties, Britten’s talent flourished.  He became acquainted in London with the music of a number of important twentieth-century composers, and added Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler, and Dmitry Shostakovich to his list of influences, which already included the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and the Second Viennese School.  He also expressed admiration for his compatriot William Walton and the Australian-born Percy Grainger. 

His own output under Ireland focused on vocal music, but he earned a chamber music award in 1932 for his string quintet, the Phantasy in F minor.  1932 also saw the completion of his Op.1, the Sinfonietta, which he conducted himself in a professional performance.  That same year Oxford University Press printed his first publication, a group of three part-songs. On his graduation the following winter he received a travel grant, which he planned to use in order to study with Alban Berg in Vienna.  However, Britten’s parents dissuaded him, believing that contact with Berg and his unconventional style might be detrimental to their son.

Employment and New Independence

Though he remained at home after graduation (1933), his momentum did not falter.  A set of choral variations, entitled A Boy was Born, was written for and premiered by the BBC singers, and in 1934 he attended a performance of his Phantasy oboe quartet in Florence. This concert, for the International Society for Contemporary Music, brought his work to the attention of publishers and performance groups, both in Britain and abroad. 

Upon his return from Italy he was informed of his father’s death, which resulted from cancer.  Though enough money was left to the family to support Britten, he preferred to earn his living as a composer.  In 1935 he was hired at the General Post Office Film Unit (GPO) in London, under pioneering filmmaker John Grierson.  At the GPO, Grierson put Britten in charge of writing music for new documentaries, such as Night Mail, a 1936 film about the Royal Mail train delivery service.  The task imposed short deadlines on the composer, and the music had to closely match the filmed subject; thus, Britten was forced to sharpen his compositional skills and his sense of dramatic writing. 

Soon after Britten assumed this position, the poet W.H. Auden also joined Grierson’s team (he wrote the narration for Night Mail), and Britten quickly became a member of Auden’s circle of young luminaries in the arts.  During the next few years, the composer provided incidental music for his friends’ stage works, and film music at the GPO, as well as some music for the BBC.  In 1936 he also completed the Temporal Variations for oboe and piano, and set several of Auden’s poems in On this Island (originally eight songs, but only five were published).

Britten found himself drawn to the left-leaning politics of his newfound friends and colleagues.  One collaboration with Auden, Our Hunting Fathers (1936), is a vocal-orchestral work condemning both human cruelty toward animals and the pre-war political situation in Europe. In the next few years, he also wrote music associated with his friends’ experimental theater group, with those fighting fascism in Spain, and with Randall Swingler, the editor of the Left Review.

During this period Britten was able to come to terms with his homosexuality.  Many of his friends, including Auden and author Christopher Isherwood openly acknowledged that they were gay, and Britten’s association with them helped him to feel more comfortable with his sexual identity, despite the fact that homosexuality was neither lawful nor publicly tolerated in England at the time.  His mother’s death in 1937, while devastating to Britten, also in some ways freed him to at last pursue romantic relationships.  A few months later, he met a tenor named Peter Pears.  They were close friends at first, and soon shared a flat, but eventually became lifelong partners as well.

American Overture

The two embarked on a voyage to North America in 1939.  With the European situation worsening, Auden and Isherwood had already moved to New York, and Britten desired a change himself.  After a short stay in Canada and a trip to Michigan, Britten and Pears settled at Woodstock in New York, near their friend Aaron Copland.  There Britten worked on a violin concerto (1939), and the song cycle Les Illuminations, on texts by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. 

His works performed in the U.S., the piano concerto (from 1938) and the violin concerto, were successful with audiences, and Britten received several new commissions—one, interestingly, from the Japanese government in 1940 (before Japan’s direct involvement in World War II) for the 2600th anniversary of their governing dynasty.  This was the Sinfonia da Requiem, with which Britten intended to express his sentiments on war and to memorialize his parents.  Finding the work to be somewhat unsuitable for the celebrations, the Japanese government politely honored the fee but did not perform the work.  The composition did, however, receive  performances in New York, Boston, and Chicago.

As England entered World War II, those abroad were advised to remain where they were.  While remaining in America Britten suffered an extended illness in 1940, but still managed to compose fairly continuously.  His output that year included the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, written for Pears’ voice, the Diversions for left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, music for radio (in collaboration with Auden), and several short pieces for piano (Op.23). 

At the end of the year, Britten and Pears relocated to Brooklyn Heights to be near Auden and his then-partner, Chester Kallman, an American poet.  In New York Britten turned to writing for younger musicians at the urging of his publishers, Boosey and Hawkes.  The firm maintained a New York office and a representative there suggested that the composer turn to music that might be easily marketed among American high school music programs.  The result was the 1941 operetta Paul Bunyan, a very American subject, with a text by Auden.  It was not received particularly well, but has been revived occasionally since its premiere.  A summer in California yielded Britten’s First String Quartet, and a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra produced what was later known as An American Overture.

New Success in England

Britten and Pears returned to England in the spring of 1942.  As conscientious objectors, at home they both faced tribunals and the potential assignment of non-combatant duties.  However, in the end they were released from such obligations and were left free to continue along their career paths.   On the voyage back to England, Britten had completed the choral work titled Hymn to Saint Cecilia, on texts by Auden, as well as A Ceremony of Carols.  The Hymn was performed on Britten’s birthday (St. Cecilia’s Day), 1942, by the BBC Singers, and the Ceremony of Carols debuted in December with the Fleet Street Choir at Norwich Castle.  In the fall, Britten and Pears premiered the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo to great critical and public acclaim. Decca also immediately snapped up the pieces, which led to a successful recording.  

While in the United States, Britten had begun making plans for the composition of an opera. He was initially encouraged in this undertaking by Serge.  The famous conductor had conducted the Boston premiere of the Symphonia da Requiem and was so impressed by its dramatic content that he suggested Britten write operas. When Britten answered that the work he did for a living did not allow him the time, Koussevitzky further encouraged the idea with a $1000 commission for a stage work and the offer to perform it at the Tanglewood Festival.

In fact, only a few months before, Britten himself had already reached the conclusion he wanted to write operas.  He had read an article written by the English novelist E.M. Forster about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, and had begun to consider the 1810 poem “The Borough” as prospective material for a libretto.  Montagu Slater, Britten’s friend from his early days in the General Post Office Film Unit, realized the libretto and this project eventually became the opera Peter Grimes.  Pears was employed as the leading tenor at the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company in London, and the new opera was set for production there.  The work was stalled due to the librettist’s inexperience with writing opera, his ill health, and Britten’s own illness in England in the spring of 1943.  Britten was able to finish several other works, however, including the Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings, a Prelude and Fugue for strings, and the choral work Rejoice in the Lamb

The years after Britten’s return to England (1942) were preoccupied with the rather slow organization and composition of the Peter Grimes project.  The opera opened at last on June 7, 1945, and was instantly hailed as the first significant English opera since those of Henry Purcell in the seventeenth century.  In the next few years it was performed throughout Europe and in the United States, and was broadcast by the BBC.  The opera was groundbreaking in numerous ways: it was a masterful vernacular composition; it proved that an audience existed for new operas; and it dealt directly with issues of homosexuality and social prejudice.  This was the first in a long line of Britten’s operas to address the situation of the social outsider and to pay particular attention to perceptions of sexuality and sexual orientation.  The public criminalization and pathologization of homosexuality became a recurring theme in the composer’s operatic works, from Peter Grimes through Death in Venice.

Shortly after this success, he wrote a new song cycle for Pears, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, as well as the Second String Quartet, and worked on the film The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.    Pears, along with Eric Crozier, the Sadler’s Wells director and producer, had resigned over the politics of staging new works in a traditional medium, and they established their own company to further their progressive goals. The Rape of Lucretia (1946) was written for the new group, which was stationed at the Glyndebourne Festival.  When Lucretia was received unfavorably, Glyndebourne did not want to finance another such project, so Britten and Crozier organized their own company. 

The new English Opera Group settled at Aldeburgh and opened for business with Britten’s and Crozier’s 1947 comic opera, Albert Herring.  For this group Britten also provided a new edition of the eighteenth-century ballad opera A Beggar’s Opera (1948), and the children’s works Let’s Make an Opera and The Little Sweep (both in 1949). Aldeburgh proved to be a perfect location for a new music festival as well; this festival opened in 1948 and attracted numerous high-profile figures.

The Arts Council for the 1951 Festival of Britain commissioned the next opera project.  Billy Budd (1951, revised 1960), an interpretation of the Melville work of the same title, was composed using a libretto by the celebrated novelist E.M. Forster.  The opera is unusual in that it is set on a naval ship, and thus utilizes no female characters or female voices, and in that it uses Forster’s prose text rather than verse. 

The following year, 1952, another opera was composed.  Following the death of King George VI was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and Britten wrote his opera Gloriana to honor the occasion. The writing of such a work by a composer not associated with the court was unprecedented in English history. And, although Gloriana had the support of the audience, it was much criticized in the press, for reasons varying from the treatment of the subject (the private affairs of the court of Elizabeth I) to the cost of its production; it seemed that some resentment was also felt against what was considered Britten’s preferential treatment.

While preparations began for Gloriana, Britten was already working on The Turn of the Screw, with a libretto adapted from Henry James by Myfanwy Piper, the wife of the English Opera Group’s designer.  Just as Peter Grimes had done, this opera thoughtfully addressed social topics such as social oppression, innocence, and implications of pedophilia, to a highly successful dramatic and musical effect.  Rehearsed at Aldeburgh and premiered in Venice in 1954, the production made its way back to London, went on a national tour, and then traveled to Holland.  In this larger international context, reviews were generally favorable, and it is to this day one of the most frequently performed of Britten’s operas.


Before beginning work on his next major work, the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Britten set out with Pears on a journey through Asia for three months in 1955.  Their stop in Indonesia proved to be particularly important, as Britten was able to hear firsthand the music of Javanese and Balinese gamelan ensembles.  He had been introduced to Balinese gamelan music while in the United States, through his friendship with composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee. Many of Britten’s works had previously shown McPhee’s influence, but The Prince of the Pagodas is the most representative example.  A visit to Japan also became important in its influence on the later opera Curlew River (1963).

In 1958 came Noye’s Fludde, a biblical opera meant for television broadcast, but premiered instead at the Aldeburgh Festival.  It was written with audience participation in mind, with children taking part onstage and in the orchestra, and the young in the audience enlisted to sing hymnsA Midsummer Night’s Dream followed in 1960, with innovative orchestration, and a text taken directly from Shakespeare. 

In 1961 Britten was asked to write a work to celebrate the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral. The new cathedral was built on the ruins of the old one, which had been bombed during the Second World War.  Britten’s response, The War Requiem, was his largest work, involving chorus, soloists and two separate instrumental ensembles, with a conductor for each. The Latin in this work was supplemented by the poetry of Wilfred Owen, which imbued the work with a strong pacifist statement. It was premiered in May 1962, with Pears, the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and the celebrated baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soloists. 

Britten also wrote three church parables in the 1960s: The Burning Fiery Furnace, The Golden Vanity, and The Prodigal Son.  In 1968, returning from a trip to Venice, he became ill with an infection of the heart, and narrowly escaped death.

Last Works

Though Noye’s Fludde was never broadcast on television, a later work by Britten, Owen Wingrave, was a more successful foray into television opera.  Britten turned again to Myfanwy Piper for the libretto, based on another ghost story by Henry James.  Broadcast in 1971 in both Europe and America, Owen Wingrave tells the story of a late-nineteenth-century pacifist rejected by his family—it is significant that this was written as worldwide tensions rose regarding the Vietnam War and the Russian presence in Czechoslovakia.  Britten again collaborated with Piper for the opera Death in Venice, adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella. It is a work of complex psychological, sexual, and metaphysical exploration, and Britten identified deeply with the story.

The 1976 Aldeburgh Festival included a revised version of Paul Bunyan and a performance of the vocal cantata Phaedra, which he had written for mezzo-soprano Janet Baker.  During the festival, it was announced that the Queen had bestowed upon Britten the honor of a life peerage.  

His last work, a Welcome Ode for children to perform during a local visit from the Queen, had to be written with the help of composer Colin Matthews due to Britten’s ill health.  Just after the premiere of Death in Venice three years earlier, Britten had been hospitalized for surgery to replace a heart valve, and his health had steadily declined.  He was able to celebrate his sixty-third birthday, but by then was seriously ill.  He died on December 4, 1976.


Brett, Philip, Jennifer Doctor, Judith LeGrove, and Paul Banks: ‘Britten, (Edward) Benjamin’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 6 October 2005), <>

Oliver, Michael.  Benjamin Britten. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996.

White, Eric Walter.  Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.