Benjamin BrittenY-18-Britten-(unverOA)-90-01 (E)  

Samuel Britten (1913 - 1976)
Britten is considered by many to be modern Britain's equivalent to the great seventeenth century British composer Henry Purcell.

This an expanded version of a German text published in Die Andere Welt, March 1990, p4.

ritten is considered by many to be modern Britain's equivalent to the great seventeenth century British composer Henry Purcell. His life-partner Peter Pears, wrote "Britten never claimed to be an innovator, the generation of revolutionaries was the previous one to his. ... In endeavouring to build his own tradition he turned to Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Verdi. "[I]

Britten himself made his "policy" clear in 1964.

"It is a good thing to please people, even if only for today. That is what we should aim at - pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself."

Britten's life was far from bohemian, but almost puritanical and he tried, consciously, to avoid scandals.

Benjamin Britten of Aldeburgh

Benjamin Britten was born on 22nd. November 1913 in Lowestoft, in the English county of Suffolk. Lowestoft is a small port on the east coast of England, north of London. He later recalled "My life as a child was coloured by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships onto the coast and ate away whole stretching of neighbouring cliffs." He drew a musical picture of such a storm in the "Sea Interludes" from his first opera Peter Grimes. Britten had strong feelings for the Suffolk area and after he became successful as a composer and socially recognised, built his own music centre there at Aldeburgh.

Britten's mother was a singer and she began to teach him the piano at an early age. According to one sourceI he "learned to play the piano before most of us learn to read and write. From his fifth birthday, he began to compose "seriously". He recalled in a radio programme: "I remember the first time I tried, the result looked rather like the Forth Bridge - in other words, hundreds of dots all over the page connected by long lines all joined together in beautiful curves. I am afraid it was the pattern on the paper, which I was interested in; and when I asked my mother to play it, her look of horror upset me considerably. My next efforts were much more conscious of sound. I started playing the piano and wrote elaborate tone poems usually lasting about twenty seconds, inspired by terrific events in home life."[II]

His background obviously gave him a love of vocal music and he wrote much choral and song music; his operas are among the most performed of post-1945 operas.

At ten he began to learn the viola.

Since his father was a dentist - and not poor - the young Britten was able to attend a private school, and later went to the famous Gresham's School. There he was excused participation in the Cadet Corps because of his extra "sensitive" nature. Peter Pears wrote later that the time at Gresham's had been two "difficult" years for Britten.

Britten won a stipend to study at the Royal College of Music in London.

One of Britten's great "love's" was to compose for children and young people. Several of his works are written directly for them or include them in the performers. Among the first of such works were Three two-part Songs (1932) and Friday Afternoons - written for the boys at the school where his older brother was a master.

In 1934 he finished writing the "Simple Symphony" (Opus 4) using material he had written when he was between 9 and twelve years old. In his "Spring Symphony" not only do children appear, but also the audience are required from time to time to join in the singing.

It was noticed that as he reached adulthood Britten, who had had a close relationship to his family, lost his openness and became shy. Doubtless this was a sign of the contradictions between his growing sexual feelings and the family "norms" of the society of the 1930's in Britain, despite the warmth and security that he felt in his family. Peter Pears reports, "As he grew up he became increasingly disappointed in the realities of adult life. He was sometimes shocked by his less inhibited contemporaries."

He began to earn a living by writing music for British film productions, including one for the G P O (General Post Office) called "Night Mail" being made by John Grierson, which was to become recognised as a classic promotion film. Together with the poet, W.H. Auden he worked on the film "Coal Face" - Auden writing the text and Britten the music. Auden was a sort of Christian Marxist - and also a self-confident homosexual had a big influence on Britten at this period. Despite a great respect for Auden's intelligence, Britten was shocked by his promiscuity.

Nevertheless Britten mixed in intellectual, homosexual circles. On one occasion, Christopher Isherwood (Berlin-Diary) and another friend of Britten's who were dining with Britten, had been trying to persuade him to accept his nature asked, (when Britten left the room for a while) "Have we convinced Ben that he is queer or haven't we?" Auden wrote a poem for Britten:

"For my friend, Benjamin Britten, composer,
I pray that fate sends him soon a passionate affair."

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten met for the first time in 1934, but at that time Pears had a partner, who was however killed (1937) in an accident.

Although his entire upbringing was against it, but he was too sensitive not to recognise that he was attracted to men. Auden had lent Britten the poems of Rimbaud to read, and he found it easy to identify with Rimbaud, - the "young sensitive, innocent who loses himself in the big city. Britten later set to music Les Illuminations (Op. 18) based on the poetry by Rimbaud to which Auden had introduced him.

"Forced" to come to terms with his natural desires as an adult, Britten never talked readily about his sexual orientation. Pears later stated in a radio interview that the much-used word "gay" was not in Britten's vocabulary, but he didn't like sectionalised thinking, and neither did he like being called a "pacifist" or an "opera composer".

Although he almost never spoke about his personal convictions or politics, he expressed them in his music - whether this was consciously so or not. He was a pacifist and in early 1939, he left for the United States as Auden his friend and librettist had done. Pears and Britten went to stay with Auden and his lover Chester Kallman at an old inn in Massachusetts. While Peter Pears charged around New England with Kallman's father, in an old Ford Model T that he had picked cheaply, Auden and Britten worked on a project Paul Bunyan.[III]

Auden moved into a house in Brooklyn Heights in October 1940, and Britten, Pears and Christopher Isherwood were among the visitors there.
Sinfonia da Requiem was written during Britten's stay in the USA, but war had broken out, and he was worrying about friends and relatives who were in danger at home. "Descending into the abyss, the music fragments, and is hurled around the orchestra in a vivid musical metaphor of terror and panic." writes Andrew Burns in notes to a Virgin CD.

Britten and Pears returned to England in March 1942. On the boat (MS Axel Johnson) bringing him back to a war-torn England, he composed Hymn to Saint Cecilia (the Patron Saint of Music) which he based on a poem written by Auden - and Rejoice in the Lamb, A ceremony of Carols. St. Cecilia's Day is by accident of history Britten's birthday (November 22nd).

After his return to England he had began a series of mid-day concerts with Peter Pears, and had a big success with the first public performance of Seven Sonnets by Michelangelo (23rd September 1942) - which also has a homoerotic content. There was a certain resentment against the "conscientious objector" Britten which lasted much of his life, but despite exceptions, Britten was much-liked by many. The Seven Sonnets, were received - according to the Daily Telegraph critic "after a second or two of tense silence, with tumultuous applause ... "

After he had become Britain's most famous modern composer, he still gave many concerts accompanying Peter Pears at the piano and he became one of the greatest interpreters of the songs of Schubert.

The opera Peter Grimes (Op. 33) was conceived in the US, where Britten had read an article by E. M. Forster about the Suffolk poet, George Crabbe. It became a milestone in British music. The opera is based on the character of a fisherman from Crabbe's poem "The Borough". Peter Pears sang the main role in Peter Grimes, which was given its first performance in 1945.

His next work showed his interest in musical education - and is possibly his most widely known composition - outside Britain at least - The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (Opus 34). It is a series of variations on a theme of Henry Purcell, which enables Britten to show the character of the instruments to young listeners and educate their ear. Interestingly it was originally written as music for the film The Instruments of the Orchestra.

Aldeburgh is a small town on the Suffolk coast. Britten moved into a house there in 1947, and a year later started the Aldeburgh Festival, which in the course of time attained considerable international prestige.

Billy Budd, his second Opera disturbed some people because it did not fit into the "norm" for operas. Firstly, it had only male characters, and secondly the plot - based on the story by Hermann Melville - has fairly clear homosexual undertones. It premiered at Covent Garden on 1st December 1951. The singer of the leading character was imported from the USA, because it was considered he should not only be a good singer, but a "good looker" too. It was reported that during the rehearsals the understudy for the role to be played by Peter Pears, was so overcome by the tragic story that he was unable to sing. None less than E.M. Forster, the famous, but secretive gay, English novelist, wrote the libretto for the opera. Despite the critics' use of descriptions such as "flawed" and "The Buggar's Opera", it was an opera that was close to Britten's heart - and is the second most performed of his operas.

Britten's doctor had on one occasion called him neurotic, but he, naturally, saw it otherwise. In a speech in 1951 made as he was awarded the title of "Honorary Citizen" of his hometown, Lowestoft, he said, "Artists are artists because they have an extra sensitivity, and a layer of skin less. It is a proud privilege to be an artist, but it is sometimes very painful."

He wrote War Requiem (Opus 66) for the re-opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral - which had been destroyed by fascist bombers in 1942. The Requiem for the rededication ceremony in 1962 was intended to honour those who died in the war as well as to show the readiness of the nations for reconciliation. Britten made his opposition to war clear not only in the nature of the music but by choosing to add some poems of Wilfred Owen into the traditional text of the Requiem. Owen, after being wounded, returned to the front in 1918, and was killed just a few days before the end of the First World War. His poems are full of bitterness and reflect his terrible experiences on the western front.

The Children's Crusade - an opera based on the poem by Bertold Brecht, was written in 1969. The children, as well as the rest of mankind, and Britten himself, were searching for peace.

Britten's last opera - Death in Venice - which he began in January 1970, was written for his partner in music and life, Peter Pears. It is based on the novel by Thomas Mann. The first producer of the opera said: "Of all his works this one struck him most at his heart." Britten also travelled to Venice to absorb the local atmosphere - and some of the local sounds including the bells of the churches and the gondoliers - can be heard in the opera. He was already suffering from bad health and understood full well, the hopeless love of Aschenbach for the young Tadzie, which threatened his mental and psychic stability. He was told while he was writing the opera, that he had a faulty heart valve and that an operation was imperative. If he didn't undergo an operation he had only two years left to live. Despite all the efforts of the doctors Britten was not able to be present at the premier of Death in Venice or at the celebrations of his 60th birthday.

Shortly before his death (12th June 1976) the British state recognised his artistic stature, by awarding him the title of "Lord Britten of Aldeburgh". He chose this title because, along with Peter Pears, he had established the musical festival at Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

He died in 6th December 1976.

In 1980 Peter Pears, singer, and Britten's partner for 39 years, spoke about his relationship to Britten, saying it was "marked by passion, loyalty and love."

Colin de la Motte-Sherman

[I] Modern British Composers, Alan Frank, Dennis Dobson, 1953
[II] Quoted Dobson S. 93
[III] Auden in Love, Dorothy J. Farnan, Simon & Schuster, New York 1984. ISBN 0-671-50418-5

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© 2001 Colin de la Motte-Sherman