(born Lowestoft 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh 4 December 1976)
The most significant English composer of the post-war period, Britten was the first British composer to devote the major part of his output to the operatic stage.
Beginning with the international success of Peter Grimes in June 1945, his sixteen operas, which include chamber operas and works for children, are now considered repertory pieces. Notably, one of his operas, Gloriana, was composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, based on her predecessor of the same name.
Among the most recognisable of Britten’s music are the orchestral Sea Interludes and Grimes’s ‘Now the Great Bear’ from Peter Grimes; Billy in the Darbies (Billy Budd); Miles’s ‘Malo song’ (The Turn of the Screw); Oberon’s ‘I know a bank’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); and ‘Does beauty lead to wisdom, Phaedrus?’ (Death in Venice) and the courtly dances from Gloriana.
Britten's Musical Style
While the early operetta Paul Bunyan drew on American folk idioms and popular genres such as blues, Peter Grimes reflects Britten’s fascination for Verdi, especially the Verdi of Otello and Falstaff, in that Grimes is basically a through-composed ‘number’ opera (i.e. a sequence of arias, duets, trios, ensembles and choruses), though not without revealing the influence of composers as diverse as Berg, Shostakovich, Gershwin and Strauss.
Similar structural principles can be observed in Billy Budd, perhaps Britten’s most ‘symphonic’ operatic composition and Gloriana. The chamber operas adhere to similar neo-classical principles. A deep-rooted loyalty to tonality, even in The Turn of the Screw, which uses a 12-note theme, persists throughout his music, though by the time of the Church Parables of the 1960s, Britten’s assimilation of techniques from Balinese and Japanese music had pared down the orchestral and vocal textures as well as blurring the grip of traditional harmony. This process continued through Owen Wingrave (BBC TV, 1971) and Death in Venice; the latter incorporates an independent percussion ensemble that evokes Balinese gamelan.
Despite their diversity of sources, Britten’s operas share common themes, notably a concern for the misfit or outsider, who is often an innocent, vulnerable individual exposed to corruption or temptation. While he may not possess the full-blown power of Berg (with whom he had hoped to study) or Janacek, Britten undoubtedly had a flair for creating psychologically convincing characters as well a maintaining an unprecedented level of ambiguity in his operas.
Britten was born to middle-class parents, and received a conventional middle-class preparatory and public school education.
Prodigiously gifted as a musician, he studied composition as a child with the British composer Frank Bridge before winning an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London, aged 16. Composing music for documentary films, experimental theatre and BBC features in the 1930s, opened the way to an interest in writing opera and his earliest work in the genre was Paul Bunyan (1941) to a libretto by W. H. Auden. Peter Grimes, premiered by Sadler’s Wells Opera (later ENO) a month after the VE Day, was a turning point in his career and that of his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who played the title role.
Although Britten continued to write large-scale operatic works – notably Billy Budd and Gloriana (1953) – his formation of the small-scale English Opera Group saw him writing a series of chamber operas, beginning with The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and continuing in the 1960s with the three Church Parables, beginning with the Japanese Noh play-inspired Curlew River (1964).
His setting of the Chester Miracle Play Noye’s Fludde (1958) remains one of the very finest stage works for child performers.
For Pears’s distinctive voice Britten created an important canon of operatic roles, none more so than Gustav von Aschenbach, the doomed central character in Death in Venice.
Britten's Music: Where to Start
- Billy Budd (1951), after Herman Melville’s novella
- The Turn of the Screw (1954), after Henry James’s novella
- Noye’s Fludde (1958)
- Death in Venice (1973), after Thomas Mann’s novella