Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Benjamin Britten was one of the most important and widely performed composers  of the 20th Century and is easily the most important British opera composer. He began composing as a boy and received instruction privately from Frank Bridge. Later, he studied with John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music.

As a young man, Britten became good friends with the poet, W. H. Auden, and set his poetry in many songs and choral pieces. He also visited America, where he became influenced by some of the popular works of his friend and fellow composer, Aaron Copland. While in the United States, he wrote his first opera, Paul Bunyan. Other early works include the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (his first composition teacher), the Simple Symphony, and the Sinfonia da Requiem, a piece similar to the later Symphony No. 3, “Liturgique” by Arthur Honegger.

His first major success was the opera, Peter Grimes in 1945. It revolutionized opera, especially in Great Britain. Several operas followed, including Billy Budd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Death in Venice, and Gloriana (written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II). His greatest success was with the War Requiem in 1962. Britten was a lifelong pacifist and used not only the latin text of the Requiem, but poetry written by Wilfrid Owen, and young British soldier killed in World War I.

Britten wrote several orchestral works, choral music, song cycles, and even some chamber music. Three notable small operas are his “Church Parables”: Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son. He was also a gifted composer for children and school ensembles. Two notable pieces are the Young Person’s Guide for the Orchestra, (which often features narration to introduce children to the different instruments of the symphony orchestra) and Noye’s Fludde, a children’s opera from the Medieval English Miracle play about Noah and the Ark.

Britten was not only a composer, but was also a gifted pianist and conductor. He conducted and recorded most of his own works, as well as music by Bach and other composers. With his longtime friend Peter Pears, (who Britten wrote most of his tenor roles for), Britten established the Aldeburgh Music & Art Festival. Several of his pieces were premiered there. Today, the festival continues and has expanded to include musical training for students and composers.

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