Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

(born Lowestoft 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh 4 December 1976)

The most remarkable English composer of the post-war period, Edward Benjamin Britten changed the face of British opera and composed some of this century’s most-loved choral works. 

Renowned for his emotive and accessible compositions, Britten’s works range from enchanting operas to heartfelt choral masterpieces and orchestral gems. Beginning with the international success of Peter Grimes, his 16 operas – which include chamber operas and works for children – are now regularly performed at theatres worldwide. 

In this guide, we’ll delve into the melodies and milestones of Benjamin Britten, and explore the stories behind his most famous works. Whether you’re a music enthusiast or a newcomer to the classical world, join us on a journey to understanding the man who shaped twentieth-century music.


The life of Benjamin Britten: A summary

Let’s dive deeper into Britten’s life – starting with his childhood and education, then moving onto key moments in his career and some of his most celebrated operas.

Early life and education 

Benjamin Britten (whose first name was officially Edward) was born on November 22nd, 1913, in the East Suffolk town of Lowestoft, England, to middle-class parents. Growing up in a nurturing and musically inclined household, his mother was an amateur singer and his father a dentist with a keen interest in music. Britten showed remarkable musical talent from an early age. 

As a young boy, Britten attended an elementary school in his hometown of Lowestoft, before moving to Gresham’s School, in Norfolk, in 1928. He studied composition as a child and flourished under the guidance of composer Frank Bridge, laying the foundation for his future brilliance. Britten stayed there for two years before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied under John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams. 

Britten’s early achievements included compositions such as A Boy was Born (1933), which marked the emergence of a composer who would later leave an unforgettable mark on the world of classical music. 

Career Highlights

Composing music for documentary films, experimental theatre, and BBC features in the 1930s paved the way for Britten’s 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 VE Day (1945), was a turning point in Benjamin Britten’s career – and that of his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, who played the title role. 

In 1948, Britten co-founded what was to become the famous Aldeburgh Festival, just a stone’s throw from his childhood home. Although Britten continued to write large-scale operatic works – notably Billy Budd (1951) and Gloriana (1953) – his formation of the small-scale English Opera Group saw him writing a series of chamber operas. These began with The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and continued in the 1960s with a trio of Church Parables, that were intended to be accessible to a younger audience. The three parables included the Japanese Noh play-inspired Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). 

Perhaps most notably, Britten composed his War Requiem (1962) for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral; this poignant anti-war masterpiece remains as one of the greatest choral works of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, he received numerous prestigious accolades, including the Order of Merit in 1965, a knighthood in 1953, and multiple Grammy Awards. 

Later Life

In his final twelve years, Britten created notable works including the opera Death in Venice (1973) and three cello suites for Rostropovich – hailed as on par with Bach’s masterpieces. His last compositions, crafted after an unsuccessful heart operation, bravely confronted mortality – as seen in pieces like Phaedra (1975) and the last movement of the Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974). Britten sadly passed away from heart failure on the 4th of December, 1976, and was laid to rest in Aldeburgh Parish Church alongside his partner, Peter Pears. 

Britten was the first composer to be honoured with a life peerage, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk in 1976. His forty-year partnership with Peter Pears produced a rich musical legacy, commemorated through memorials including the Britten Pears Arts charity, based in their former residence (The Red House), and the Young Artist Programme. Britten’s profound impact on twentieth-century music led to several other memorials – including a window in St Peter and St Paul’s church – honouring his church operas, as well as concerts, special events, stamps, and even a new 50 pence coin to celebrate his centenary in 2013. 

Britten’s musical style and influence

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. Like Otello and Falstaff, Grimes is a through-composed ‘number’ opera (i.e. a sequence of arias, duets, trios, ensembles and choruses). It also reveals the influence of composers as diverse as Berg, Shostakovich, Gershwin and Strauss. 

Similar structural principles can also 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. 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, 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, Benjamin Britten’s operas share common themes; typically, there is a concern for a misfit or outsider, who is often an innocent and 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 Janáček, Britten undoubtedly had a flair for creating psychologically convincing characters, as well maintaining an unprecedented level of ambiguity in his operas. 

Britten’s most famous songs 

  • ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ (1942)
  • ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ (1946)
  • ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes (1945)
  • ‘Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge’ (1937)
  • ‘Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings’ (1943)
  • ‘Simple Symphony’ (1934)
  • ‘Violin Concerto’ (1939)
  • ‘Hymn to St. Cecilia’ (1942)
  • ‘Les Illuminations’ (1939)
  • ‘Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo’ (1940)

Britten’s music in action

Britten’s most famous operas

Discover more about Benjamin Britten’s operas that have been performed in previous seasons by the ENO, or take a look at our other beginner guides to famous composers on our Discover Opera section.


Britten lived in most of his life in Aldeburgh (in the county of Suffolk, England). The famous ‘Red House’ where he lived (which is now the base of the charity Britten Pears Arts), sits next to the golf course where Britten would take brisk afternoon strolls to clear his head before composing. 


Benjamin Britten composed a total of 16 operas during his lifetime along with major film music, orchestral pieces, and hundreds of songs. Between the ages of five and 18, Britten had written close to 800 works and this was preceding any published compositions! 

An interesting fact about Benjamin Britten is that he was born on November 22, 1913 which is also the feast day of St. Cecilia: the patron saint of music. This coincidence is fitting for a composer who would later create magnificent musical compositions and pay homage to the art form throughout his life. 

Britten’s most famous piece is arguably the opera Peter Grimes. Premiering in 1945, it remains a cornerstone of twentieth-century opera, renowned for its powerful storytelling and groundbreaking musical language. Read the full synopsis of this haunting opera, performed by the ENO during the 2023/24 season. 

Britten was 63 years old when he passed away from heart failure in 1976.