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Benjamin Britten was the finest opera composer that England has ever produced. And his other masterpieces – including the War Requiem, concertos, and countless songs – reveal a composer of extraordinary skill and originality.
Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk on 22 November 1913. He was the youngest of the four children of a dentist, Robert Britten, and his wife Edith Hockley who was a talented amateur musician. Here he is as a baby, pictured on his mother's knee and surrounded by his siblings. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
At three months old, Benjamin nearly died from pneumonia. His parents were told that he would probably not enjoy a normal, healthy life, but he recovered better than expected and went on to become a keen tennis player and cricketer. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Unique among his siblings - and much to their mother's delight - young Benjamin was an outstandingly musical child. She gave the boy his first piano lessons. He made his first attempts at composing aged five and at ten, he began to play the viola. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Britten's early musical life was dominated by the great composers. His mother's ambition was for him to become the 'fourth B’ – after Bach, Beethoven (pictured) and Brahms. Britten later said his musical development was stifled by his reverence for these masters.
Attending South Lodge school in Lowestoft as a day boy, Britten loved maths and cricket, liked football and behaved well – but his passion was for music. He composed ‘lots of it, reams and reams of it.’ Britten was outraged at the severe punishments frequently meted out on pupils. He later said his pacifism probably had its roots in his reaction to the school regime. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In 1924 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Britten first heard Frank Bridge's orchestral poem The Sea, conducted by the composer. He said he was ‘knocked sideways’. The following year, Britten met Bridge who was impressed with the boy and, after they had gone through some of Britten's compositions together, invited him to study with him. The teenager took day trips to London to learn composition from Bridge and study piano with his colleague, Harold Samuel. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In September 1928, Britten went as a boarder to Gresham's School in Holt, Norfolk. The experience was not a positive one. He hated being separated from his family, disliked the music teacher, and was appalled by the bullying. He is pictured front row far left in this photograph from 1929. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In 1930, Britten won a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. His examiners were John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams along with the college's harmony and counterpoint teacher, S. P. Waddington. While in the city, Britten immersed himself in concerts, getting to know the music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Mahler.
Britten won numerous prizes at the Royal College of Music while continuing to study privately with Frank Bridge. The first of his compositions to garner wide attention were the Sinfonietta (1932), and the choral variations A Boy was Born, composed in 1933 for the BBC Singers.
In February 1935, Britten was invited to a job interview by the BBC's then director of music Adrian Boult and his assistant Edward Clark. They invited him to write the score for a documentary, The King's Stamp, for the GPO Film Unit. The film was commissioned as part of George V's Silver Jubilee and focused on the commissioning and production of the commemorative postage stamp.
Britten became a member of the GPO film unit's group of regular contributors, another of whom was the poet, W.H. Auden. Together they worked on the films, Coal Face and Night Mail. From 1935 to 1937 Britten wrote nearly 40 scores for theatre, cinema and radio. Auden and Britten also collaborated on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and subsequent other works including Cabaret Songs, On This Island, Paul Bunyan and Hymn to St. Cecilia. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In 1937, Britten became friends with the tenor Peter Pears while they were both helping to clear out the cottage of a mutual friend. Pears quickly became Britten's musical inspiration and, initially, a close friend. Britten's first work for Pears was composed within weeks of their meeting, a setting of Emily Brontë's poem, "A thousand gleaming fires", for tenor and strings. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In April 1939, Britten and Pears sailed to North America. The position of pacifists in Europe was becoming more precarious and Britten was reeling from hostile press reviews of his music. Their relationship evolved and, from then on, they were partners in both their professional and personal lives. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Already a friend of the American composer Aaron Copland - pictured centre with Britten and Pears - Britten encountered his latest works Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture, both of which influenced his own music. In 1941 Britten produced his first music drama, Paul Bunyan, an operetta based on stories of the fabled American lumberjack, to a libretto by W.H. Auden. Picture copyright: Britten-Pears Library
In 1942 Britten read The Borough, a collection of poems by George Crabbe. Set on the Suffolk coast, it awakened in him the longing to return to England. He also decided to write an opera based on Crabbe's poem about the fisherman Peter Grimes. Britten and Pears returned in April 1942. During the long transatlantic sea crossing, Britten completed the choral works A Ceremony of Carols and Hymn to St Cecilia. Photo by Hans Wild. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Having arrived in Britain, Britten and Pears applied for recognition as conscientious objectors. Britten was initially allowed only non-combatant service in the military, but on appeal he gained unconditional exemption. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Britten used money bequeathed to him by his mother to buy the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk, which became his country home. He spent much of his time there in 1944 working on Peter Grimes. Photo by Roland Haupt. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Peter Grimes – with Peter Pears in the title role - opened in London in June 1945 and was acclaimed by public and critics alike. As a result, Britten became internationally celebrated.
In 1945, Britten wrote The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra for an educational film, Instruments of the Orchestra, directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the LSO conducted by Malcolm Sargent. It became Britten's most popular and most performed work. Photo: Muir Mathieson Archive.
After a Glyndebourne tour of Britten's Rape of Lucretia lost a lot of money, Britten and friends set up the English Opera Group to produce and commission new English works, presenting them throughout the country. Britten wrote his opera Albert Herring for the group in 1947. While on tour in Herring, Peter Pears came up with the idea of mounting a festival in the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, where Britten had moved earlier in the year, and which became his principal residence for the rest of his life. Photo: Programme for First Aldeburgh Festival by Nigel Luckhurst. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In the 1950s, Britten became increasingly influenced by the music of the East, fostered by a tour there with Pears in 1957. Britten saw and loved Japanese Noh plays. Here they are pictured in Bali. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Britten's eastern influences were seen and heard in the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and later in two chamber operas, Curlew River (1964) and The Prodigal Son. Here Britten is seen in Japan playing a shō. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
When redundant Victorian maltings buildings in Snape, six miles from Aldeburgh, became available n the 1960s, Britten had the vision that the largest of them could be converted into a concert hall and opera house. Snape Maltings hall was opened by the Queen at the start of the 20th Aldeburgh Festival in June 1967; it was immediately hailed as one of the best concert halls in the country. It was destroyed by fire in 1969, but Britten was determined that it would be rebuilt in time for the following year's festival, which it was. Photo by Hans Wild. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
One of the best known of Britten's works, the War Requiem, was premiered in 1962 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. Britten decided that his work would commemorate the dead of both World Wars in a large-scale score for soloists, chorus, chamber ensemble and orchestra.
At Snape in 1970, Britten conducted the first performance outside Russia of Shostakovich's Symphony No.14. Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to Britten. Another Russian musician who was close to Britten was the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. He's seen here rehearsing with Britten in Blythburgh Church in 1965. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Britten composed his cello suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered them at the Aldeburgh Festival. Here they are seen together in 1963, rehearsing in Moscow. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
New works by Britten featured in almost every Aldeburgh festival until the composer's death in 1976, including the premieres of his operas, A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Jubilee Hall in 1960 and Death in Venice at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1973 - pictured. Photo by Jane Jacomb-Hood. Copyright Britten-Pears Foundation.
Britten was a celebrated pianist and conductor, performing many of his own works in concert and on record. He also performed and recorded works by others, such as Bach's Brandenburg concertos, Mozart symphonies, and song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.
After the completion of Death in Vencice, Britten went into the National Heart Hospital and was operated on in May 1973 to replace a failing heart valve. The replacement was successful, but he suffered a slight stroke, affecting his right hand. This brought his career as a performer to an end. He's pictured here in 1975 with Peter Pears at Snape. Photo by Victor Parker. Copyright Britten-Pears Foundation. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
In the last year of his life Britten accepted a life peerage – the first composer so honoured – and in July 1976 became Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. Britten died of heart failure on 4 December 1976. His funeral service was held at Aldeburgh Parish Church three days later, and he was buried in its churchyard. Pears was buried by his side when he died ten years later.