Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was born on 22nd November 1913 in Lowestoft, a small town in Suffolk on the east coast of England. From an early age, Britten showed an astonishing musical talent and began composing at the age of five. At the age of seven he received piano lessons, and three years later viola lessons. In 1927, Britten was introduced to the composer Frank Bridge, who began giving him serious composition lessons. Bridge introduced Britten to the New Music of his time, from Scriabin to the Schönberg school, which was hardly known in England. He instructed his pupil to the extent that Britten’s subsequent composition studies in London were hardly able to teach him anything new. Nevertheless, Britten was able to perfect his piano skills to concert level during his simultaneous piano studies. He completed his studies in 1933 and the very next year one of his works, the "Phantasy" for oboe quartet, was performed with great success abroad.

In 1935, Britten accepted a commission to write music for a number of socially committed documentaries produced by the British postal service. Through this work he came into contact with the poet W. H. Auden, whose political thinking and social consciousness strongly influenced Britten. In collaboration with Auden, he wrote several accusing, bitterly ironic choral works, in which Britten's committed pacifism was also expressed. When Auden turned his back on England in 1939 and settled in the USA, Britten, disappointed by his homeland, soon followed him. He was accompanied by the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his congenial interpreter and life partner, inspiring many works. Instrumental music still dominated Britten's work, however, and in the USA, he composed important orchestral works, the Violin Concerto and the "Sinfonia da requiem". In a foreign country, Britten soon realised how deeply rooted he was in his homeland. So he decided to return and travelled back to war-torn Britain in March 1942. As a conscientious objector, he was not conscripted, but he was obliged to give numerous concerts, including to audiences who had little experience with music of this kind. Britten's works of this period seem to reflect these circumstances, striving for greater simplicity and wider comprehensibility.

In 1944, the composer started work on the opera that was to become his major work: "Peter Grimes", the drama about an outsider. The date of the opera's enthusiastically received premiere, 7 June 1945, marks a turning point in the history of British opera, which from that point on evolved virtually from non-existence into a vibrant art form. With a series of chamber operas and works for large stages, Britten himself played a significant role in this development.

In 1948, Britten and Pears settled in Aldeburgh, a small town in Suffolk, the composer's home. They founded an annual festival here that is still one of the most important in Britain. From then on, the compositions for the Aldeburgh Festival and for its performers were the focus of his work. Thus, for example, he wrote the "3 Suites for Solo Violoncello" for Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered them at the Aldeburgh Festival. In addition, Britten also accepted some significant commissions from abroad, such as the chilling "War Requiem", which was performed for the first time at the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in the Second World War, on 25 May 1962. Britten's last years were overshadowed by illness. In 1973, he had to undergo serious heart surgery from which he did not recover properly. The composition "Phaedra", a cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra, was to be one of his last works. The composer died in Aldeburgh on 4 December 1976.

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