Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Baron Britten 1913-1976, composer, was born in Lowestoft 22 November 1913, the youngest of four children (two sons and two daughters) of Robert Victor Britten (1878-1934), dental surgeon, and his wife, Edith Rhoda, daughter of Henry William Hockey (1874-1937), King's messenger at the Home Office, London. Hockey was also an active amateur singer and pianist and the secretary of the Lowestoft Choral Society. Benjamin Britten much admired his father but his mother was the dominant influence on his early years. His musical gifts declared themselves astonishingly early, his first attempts at composition dating from c. 1919. His mother gave him his first music lessons and a local piano teacher, Ethel Astle, succeeded her in 1921. His family were his first patrons and performers, many of his juvenilia being written for their use.
In 1923 Britten entered South Lodge Preparatory School, Lowestoft, and began viola lessons with Audrey Alston. His prodigious talent for music—he passed Grade VIII of the Associated Board piano examination at the age of twelve—did not affect his conventional school success: he was academically bright, was an excellent and enthusiastic sportsman, and became head boy in 1927. Although these years were largely happy, his leaving prep. school was shadowed by the fuss caused by an essay in which he argued against hunting, thus revealing his budding pacifist and humanist convictions. The choice of Gresham's School, Holt—at the height of its reputation as a progressive public school—reflected his parents' desire to find an environment that would accommodate his views and neither stifle nor disparage his musical gifts. Whatever its merits, Gresham's was not altogether a happy experience: the music teaching and activities—his diaries make frequent caustic references to performances by his teachers—fell far below his expectations and standards.
Two juvenile works, Quatre Chansons Françaises for voice and orchestra (1928) and Quartettino (1930), disclose a creative precocity which will stand comparison with Mendelssohn's or Mozart's. That Britten's gift was so technically advanced by this time was due largely to the teaching of the composer Frank Bridge [qv.] whom he had first met in 1927. From Bridge he acquired the integrity of his technique, his professionalism, and his awareness of the new music in Europe. Bridge was a viola player and a pacifist—reasons for an immediate sympathy between master and pupil—and Britten regarded him as his musical conscience throughout his creative life. In 1930 Britten won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London. At Bridge's insistence he studied with another composer, John Ireland [qv.], while continuing at the college his piano lessons with Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960), having previously studied the piano, for about a year, with Harold Samuel (1879-1937). Britten was an industrious, conscientious, and ambitious student, twice winning the Ernest Farrar composition prize (1931 and 1933) and funds (though not the award) from the Mendelssohn scholarship, but it was his life outside the college—London's music, cinemas, and theatres—that gave him the enlarged horizons that influenced his development.
John Grierson [qv.], the innovative head of the GPO Film Unit, employed Britten—on the recommendation of the college—to write some film music and he soon became in effect the unit's resident composer and music editor. He found himself in sympathy with the leftish social and political preoccupations of the unit and significantly assisted in the development of the documentary film, incidentally developing his own gifts as a dramatic composer. In 1935 he began his collaboration with W. H. Auden [qv.], then working for the unit as script-writer and occasional director, on two of the most memorable of British documentary films, Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). Auden's influence was profound: the apostle incarnate of bohemianism blew away any vestiges of provinciality still clinging to Britten and it was probably about this time that he began to acknowledge and accept his homosexual nature. His work in films led to his writing music for the theatre (principally for Rupert Doone's Group Theatre) and radio. He had achieved his ambition to enter on full-time employment as a composer without any transitional period whatever. Key works from this period include A Boy was Born (chorus, 1933); Phantasy (oboe and string trio, 1933); and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (string orchestra, 1937). Our Hunting Fathers (voice and orchestra, 1936), with a text devised by Auden, is notable for its technical virtuosity and for its reflection of the poet's and composer's impassioned reaction to the threat of European Fascism. Exhilarating optimism was equally of Britten's nature and the Bridge variations brought him further international recognition at the Salzburg Festival of 1937 (earlier successes had been at International Society for Contemporary Music festivals in 1934 (Florence) and 1936 (Barcelona).
Despite the signs of a career of high promise and achievement, Britten, with the singer (Sir) Peter Pears (born 1910), left England for the USA in May 1939. Various factors influenced this decision: the worsening political situation; the persuasive examples of Auden and Christopher Isherwood (born 1904), who had already emigrated; loosening family ties (his father had died in 1934, his mother in 1937); discouraging reviews of his music in the English press; and the growth of his friendship with Pears. The two men made their life together from 1937 onwards, an exemplary personal relationship that developed into one of the most distinguished and celebrated voice and piano duos of the twentieth century. They travelled first to Canada and then to New York. For two and three-quarter years they lived in the USA, mainly on Long Island, at Amityville, where they shared the family home and life of Dr and Mrs William Mayer, moving briefly (in 1940) to the Brooklyn house of which Auden was proxy landlord and spending the summer of 1941 at Escondido, California. When World War II began they were advised officially not to attempt to return to England, and it was not until March 1942 that they made the Atlantic crossing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. Their return was the result of anxiety at wartime separation from friends and relatives and a profound sense, on Britten's part, of deracination. What finally fired his resolve to quit the USA was the chance reading of an article by E. M. Forster [qv.] on the Suffolk poet, George Crabbe [qv.], which sowed the seed of the opera Peter Grimes. While in the USA Britten composed or completed a number of works in the larger instrumental forms, among them the Violin Concerto (1939), Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), and String Quartet No. 1 (1941), the first cycle of songs, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), composed especially for Pears, and the operetta Paul Bunyan (libretto by Auden), his first full-length stage work—a failure on its first performance in New York in 1941 and withdrawn by the composer until 1976.
On their return to England Britten and Pears registered as conscientious objectors. Britten was granted exemption from military service on the condition that he and Pears gave concerts for CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts). The principal work to emerge from the wartime years was Peter Grimes, which affirmed the composer's Suffolk roots and his preoccupation with the English language, already revealed in the Hymn to St. Cecilia for chorus (1942, words by Auden), A Ceremony of Carols for treble voices and harp (1942), and Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings (1943). One may note the oddity of the première, at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945, of so bleak and pessimistic a work coinciding with the Allies' triumph in Europe, an irony compounded by the opera's unprecedented public success. Grimes was a watershed in Britten's life. Its success established his international reputation and was the brilliant first step in the creation of a national tradition of opera. He composed no fewer than nine further operas—among them Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (1973)—three church parables, and three theatrical works for children.
From 1947 Britten lived in the small coastal town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and established a special relationship with the community of which he saw himself to be part. His prowess as a pianist of exceptional gifts was almost exclusively devoted to accompanying Pears in song recitals. As a conductor he was known as a musicians' conductor, orchestral players admiring his insight and unfussy technique. His opera conducting was the result of an invitation from John Christie [qv.] to reopen the post-war Glyndebourne season with a new opera. In 1946 Ernest Ansermet conducted Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, but in 1947 Britten conducted his Albert Herring there himself. Earlier that year he and a group of colleagues had formed the English Opera Group, dedicated to the commissioning of chamber operas from Britten's contemporaries, the first performances of which invariably took place at the annual Aldeburgh Festival; and from 1947, with only occasional exceptions, all Britten's musico-theatrical works were written for and first performed by the Group. The Aldeburgh Festival, which he, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier founded in 1948, was in its twenty-ninth year when Britten died. Such was his prestige that many of the best performing artists of his time were drawn to Aldeburgh each June. Composing; directing and inspiring the English Opera Group and Aldeburgh Festival; partnering Pears; recording and occasionally conducting: this was the agenda that kept Britten preternaturally busy for most of his life. There were frequent trips overseas, of which two require special mention: a concert tour of the German concentration camps with Yehudi Menuhin in August 1945; and the round-the-world journey with Pears in the winter of 1955-6. His encounter with oriental music, in Japan and Bali, had profound consequences for his technical development from Curlew River (1964) onwards. The pattern of his life was determined by his composing; the only interruptions were due to occasional bouts of ill health and the building (1967) and rebuilding (after the 1969 fire) of the Maltings Concert Hall at Snape.
Britten composed prodigiously in almost every genre: songs and song cycles (of which he was an acknowledged master); chamber music (eg. four string quartets); orchestral music (eg. the Sinfonietta (chamber orchestra, 1932), at the beginning of his professional career, and the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1963), written at the height of his mature powers, both showing the scale, conviction, and vigour of his instrumental thinking); and diverse works for chorus and orchestra. One of the largest of these was War Requiem (1961), which gave fullest expression to his long-standing pacifist and antimilitarist beliefs and caught the imagination of a whole generation. Owen Wingrave (opera for television, 1970) used a mass medium to put across the same message. For his music for children and young people he developed quite specific musical techniques—different in kind from a mere simplification of his established musical usage—and his masterpiece in this area was undoubtedly Noye's Fludde (1957). Britten regarded himself as a communicator, a role which, at least in part, was responsible for his unshakeable attachment to the principle of tonality, although that principle underwent continual scrutiny, modification, and revision. He was open always to almost every aesthetic and technical influence and incorporated what he found useful or stimulating into his own eclectic but highly individual musical language
Despite the assurance of public acclaim of a scale and global spread that had been enjoyed by no other British composer, Britten remained inwardly uncertain of his achievements. This insecurity was undoubtedly responsible for the unquestioning support he exacted of his friends and collaborators, and led in later years to an intellectual climate which did not much favour debate or dissonance, in contrast with the challenges and engagements of the pre-war period. He was a truly modest, gentle, courteous, and generous man; but he could be ruthless when it came to professional standards or the achieving of a creative ambition, when he would absolutely not be thwarted. He was ready to sacrifice himself and others if the musical task demanded it.
In 1973, while completing his last opera, Death in Venice, he was dogged by increasing ill health; and in May he underwent open heart surgery for the replacement of a defective valve. The operation was not wholly successful and he suffered a slight stroke during it. He showed great courage and fortitude during his last years and continued to compose, often at a very high level of inspiration. He was unsentimental about death, a convinced humanist rather than a man of religious belief, and on 4 December 1976 he died calmly at Aldeburgh, with his lifelong companion, Peter Pears, by him.
He was created CH in 1953; was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1965; and in 1976 was created Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the county of Suffolk, the first time a life peerage had been bestowed on a British composer. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge (1959), Oxford (1963), and nine other British universities, and was an honorary fellow or member of many colleges and institutions. Among his many prizes and awards were the Coolidge medal (1941), the Hanseatic Goethe prize (1961), the first Aspen award (1964), the Wihuri-Sibelius prize (1965), the Ravel prize (1974), and the Mozart medal (1976). His executors were approached with a request for his burial in Westminster Abbey but he had declared a preference for the graveyard of Aldeburgh parish church, where he was laid to rest on 7 December 1976. A thanksgiving service took place at Westminster Abbey on 10 March 1977. The abbey was packed, fitting tribute to the foremost British composer of his time.
D. Mitchell and J. Evans (eds.), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Pictures from a Life, a pictorial biography, 1978;
D. Mitchell, Britten and Auden in the Thirties: The Year 1936 (T. S. Eliot memorial lectures for 1979), 1981;
B. Britten, On Receiving the First Aspen Award, 1964;
Peter A. Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten, 1979;
Michael Kennedy, Britten, 1981;
Contributor: Donald Mitchell