Benjamin Britten is generally considered to be one of England's greatest composers. His music draws together the threads of early music (especially that of Henry Purcell, whom Britten revered), modern European music, and the deep sense of Englishness expressed by composers such as Vaughan Williams and Holst. His music is evolutionary rather than revolutionary; rather than breaking with the past, he embraced it, and by rigorously worked out composition, based on and growing from diatonic1 models, he forged one of the most coherent and consistent paths of any composer through the confusing pluralism of mid-20th Century music.
Home and Childhood
Edward Benjamin Britten was born on the 22nd of November 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk. His mother was a keen amateur soprano, and honorary secretary of the Lowestoft Choral Society. Musical evenings at the Britten home, and visits by professional soloists performing with the Choral Society meant that the young Benjamin was surrounded by music throughout his childhood. He started composing at the amazingly early age of five, although he started by being more interested in the patterns music made on the page than in its actual sound! At South Lodge Preparatory school in Lowestoft, he continued to compose short pieces, while learning the piano and viola. Without a radio or record player in the house (his father felt they discouraged people from making their own music), Benjamin had little exposure to modern music until 1924, when he heard Frank Bridge conduct his orchestral suite The Sea, at the Norwich Triennial Festival. This revelatory experience led him to start composing longer and more ambitious works.
By the time Benjamin was twelve, it was realised that he needed more advanced musical teaching. His viola teacher was a friend of Frank Bridge, who had just come to East Anglia in a return visit to Norwich, following the success of The Sea. The two were introduced, and got on very well, and from then on Benjamin would regularly visit Bridge in Eastbourne or London. Britten later commented that Bridge's strictly disciplined approach was exactly what he needed at this point. Any practicing artist will tell you that the romantic idea of dashing off a masterpiece in a single fit of inspiration is a complete fiction, and Bridge taught young Benjamin the importance of absolutely clear and rigorous thinking as the gateway to creative freedom.
After a not entirely happy time at the Royal College of Music, Britten set out to earn his living as a composer. The first opportunity for this came by working for a film documentary company. It was during this period that the famous film Night Mail was produced, with music by Britten, and voiceover written by W.H. Auden. Night Mail was just one of many collaborations between Britten and Auden, who were to remain close friends, as well as professional collaborators. During the 1930s, Britten's reputation grew, although more in mainland Europe than in his own country, with the International Society for Contemporary Music performing his work at their festivals in Barcelona and Salzburg. It was in Salzburg that his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was premiered, a piece that brought his music to the attention of a wider public than hitherto.
Britten's lifelong relationship with the tenor singer Peter Pears had a profound effect upon his music. They had a very strong musical as well as personal partnership, and many of Britten's works feature tenor voices, including the Sinfonia da Requiem of 1940, written in memory of Britten's parents, the famous Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, and the opera Peter Grimes, the first performance of which featured Pears as the eponymous fisherman. Pears was closely involved in many of Britten's musical projects and, along with Eric Crozier, was one of the founders of the Aldeburgh Festival (more of this later). The two men are now buried side by side in Aldeburgh churhcyard, one row down from the grave of their friend and colleague Imogen Holst.
In April 1939, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears sailed to America, on a visit that was to last two and a half years. They gave quite a few recitals, and during this time Britten composed the Sinfonia da Requiem and Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo for tenor and piano, which was written specifically for Pears to sing. The two men spent much time with their friend W.H. Auden, who had by this time become an American citizen. At one stage Britten himself considered settling in America, but ultimately did not feel rooted there. In fact, a combination of homesickness and the world war which was breaking out pushed Britten into a debilitating depression which made him physically ill, and forced him to stop composing. The final push to leave America came when Britten discovered the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, who had been born in Aldeburgh, and whose poetry was thoroughly rooted in the towns, villages and landscape of Suffolk. One poem that particularly caught the imagination of Britten and Pears was 'The Borough', with its story of the brutal fisherman, Peter Grimes. In 1942, the two men made the dangerous crossing back over the Atlantic, and returned to Suffolk, and home.
Aldeburgh and Suffolk
Britten's music is inseparable from the landscape of Suffolk, especially the austerely beautiful coast, with its shingle beaches, salt marshes and reedbeds. In his lifetime, he lived in two different houses in Aldeburgh, and a converted mill in the village of Snape, six miles inland. His first opera, Peter Grimes, was set in George Crabbe's fictional 'Borough', which was closely based on Aldeburgh. Alongside his national and international musical work, Britten was an active participant in his local music scene, writing works for amateur performers, and for children. This tradition continues today in the work of Adeburgh Productions.
Upon his return to England from America, Britten started work on his first opera, Peter Grimes. This represented more than a single work, however. Britten was determined to create a viable new form - English Opera. England had not had much of an opera tradition to speak of, and Britten wanted to create an opera that spoke with a uniquely English voice, not beholden to the German or Italian models. Peter Grimes tells the story of a misfit fisherman, who tries to rebuild his life following the accidental death of his apprentice, but who is ultimately defeated and driven to his own death by the uncomprehending locals. In the original poem on which the opera was based, 'The Borough' by George Crabbe, Grimes was a brutal and violent man, but Britten's opera paints him with more compassion, understanding him as decent and capable of kindness, but socially inept. The sea and the weather play important roles in the opera, reflecting and shaping the lives of the participants, and Britten paints a masterly musical portrait of the various moods of the sea, as well as the human tragedy that is played out in front of them.
Peter Grimes was first performed at Saddler's Wells on the 7th of June 1945, a month after V.E. day, and was an immediate triumph. From that day, English music gained an extra dimension. Britten went on to write many operas, including The Rape of Lucretia, Owen Wingrave and his last opera, Death in Venice, based on Thomas Mann's novella of the same name.
The War Requiem
Coventry's city centre, including its cathedral, was devastated by German bombing in November 1940. With great vision, it was decided to leave the ruins of the old cathedral as they were, and to build a new cathedral, desgined by Sir Basil Spence. in a modern style, next to it. The new cathedral boasted a baptistry window by John Piper and a High Altar tapestry by Graham Sutherland, and was intended to symbolise reconciliation and a new beginning. For the consecration in May 1962, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write possibly his most famous work, the War Requiem. The unique power of the piece stems from its interleaving of the latin Requiem Mass with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. As well as a large orchestra, and adult and child choirs, the piece features Tenor, Baritone and Soprano soloists. The intention for the first performance was that these soloists should be the British Peter Pears, the German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the Russian Galina Vishnevskaya respectively. Sadly, the Soviet authorities prevented Galina Vishnevskaya taking part, and Heather Harper had to step in just ten days before the performance. Like Peter Grimes, the War Requiem proved to be a landmark work, receiving critical and popular acclaim. A Decca recording made in 1963 sold a quarter or a million copies in the first five months of its release.
If you want to learn about the War Requiem in more detail, Bels has written an excellent Guide entry. Click here to read it.
The Aldeburgh Festival
It was in 1947, when Britten and Pears were travelling from a music festival in Holland to another in Switzerland, that they first had the idea for their own festival, to be based in Aldeburgh. Back home, they mooted the idea to the Mayor and Vicar, as well as members of the Town Council, and obtained permission to hold concerts in the Parish Church and the Baptist Chapel. Also, a few owners of large houses offered rooms for picture exhibitions. The first concert of the first festival was a performance of Britten's cantata St. Nicholas, held in the parish church. From the earliest years, the festival attracted such music and arts luminaries as Michael Tippett, Lennox Berkeley, Hans Werner Henz and Henry Moore. It has since grown in size, and many concerts now take place in a converted maltings building in the village of Snape, a few miles inland from Aldeburgh. The Maltings has become a world famous concert venue, and Aldeburgh Productions has grown to a year-round enterprise, staging other musical events, and running a strong educational programme. The festival retains some if its intimacy, though; the day after hearing the premiere of a work by Danish composer Poul Ruders, I found myself having lunch at the next table to him, in a pub garden in Aldeburgh! I recommend a visit to www.aldeburgh.co.uk, to find out more about the Festival and other Aldeburgh events.