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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
British Composers, Alan Frank, Dennis Dobson, 1953
Dobson S. 93
in Love, Dorothy J. Farnan, Simon & Schuster, New York 1984.