The Beginner's Guide to Benjamin Britten
One of the 20th Century’s foremost composers, Benjamin Britten has become one of modern opera’s most prominent names, often compared with Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Holst. Best known for his opera Peter Grimes, learn more about Britain’s own, almost titular, composer.
Suffolk, born and bred
Born in 1913 to dentist Robert Britten and wife civil service clerk Edith in the town of Lowestoft on the east coast of Suffolk, Edward Benjamin Britten struggled with ill health from the outset. After nearly succumbing to pneumonia at only 3 months old, he began a life full of various afflictions at various points.
At aged 7, Benjamin was sent to a dame school, a small privately-run institution that was common in Britain at the time, where he began to be taught piano by one of the sisters of the school, Ethel Astle, with whom he continued lessons for much of his childhood.
By 14, Britten had developed a keen interest in music, and upon hearing a concert featuring Frank Bridge’s The Sea, he was ‘knocked sideways’ by it, marking the first ‘modern’ piece of classical music he heard. Bridge took Britten under his wing, starting the latter on composing with a String Quartet in F in 1928, and by 1930 had moved away from East Anglia schooling to study composition in London at the Royal College of Music.
A British sound
Through his tutelage with Frank Bridge, Britten was exposed to a variety of composers’ works, including those of Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich, Ravel and Debussy, which became influential in his burgeoning composing career.
Britten’s compositional style was distinctive, with a slow drift from the tonal to including atonal elements in his later works such as Death in Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Owen Wingrave, the latter of which was composer specifically for a TV recording.
Whilst defining the British classical ‘sound’ for many, Britten was also heavily influenced by eastern music, having toured several countries in 1956 with Peter Pears. Nowhere is this more evident than in Curlew River, a piece based on a Japanese ‘noh’ play featuring characteristically eastern harmonies and gamelan influences.
Despite his reputation for folk-adjacent works, Britten disliked the works of the English Pastoral School, a group of composers who based their compositions on Tudor-period works. This group included Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, George Butterworth and, notably, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland – two composers who had awarded Britten a scholarship in composition for the Royal College of Music in 1930.
Perhaps considered the most influential works of his compositional output, Britten’s operas are amongst the most performed of any 20th Century composer worldwide. Written for varying sizes of company and production, Britten’s operas often mirrored aspects of the composer’s own life, namely a protagonist at odds with society in one aspect or another. As a pacifist homosexual in the mid 20th Century, Britten’s alienation is evident in works such as Peter Grimes, Albert Herring and Billy Budd.
Notably, some of the smaller scale operas were composed specifically for church performances. As part of the Aldeburgh Festival (a festival Britten set up, based around his hometown of Aldeburgh and nearby Snape in Suffolk) between 1958 and 1968, Britten wrote four operas (Noye’s Fludde, Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son) for performance in St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford. The latter three formed a trio of ‘Parables for Church Performance’, intended to be accessible to a younger audience as well as appreciators of the genre.
Many of the principle tenor parts in his output were written specifically for Britten’s life partner, Peter Pears, with whom he had a professional and personal relationship for over 40 years before Britten’s death in 1976. Pears rose to prominence as the title role in Peter Grimes’ world premiere in 1945 at Sadlers Wells Opera Company – the same opera company that would later become English National Opera!
Composer to Royalty
Britten’s reorchestration of ‘God Save the Queen’, known as ‘The National Anthem’, has become potentially the most famous arrangement of the anthem, composed for and first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1962. More recently, the ENO performed the piece as ‘God Save the King’ in the early days of King Charles III’s rule.
Another of Britten’s works that concerns a monarch is Gloriana, written for the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II and concerning the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, and her relationship to the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. At first friends and confidantes, the Earl and Queen later become at odds with a series of unfortunate circumstances, including an attempted coupe.