Benjamin Britten was without doubt the leading British composer
of the postwar period. Born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, he began
composing at the age of five and completed a string quartet within
four years. He studied theory with Frank Bridge, who shared his
distaste for the prevailing English pastoral style, preferring
such Continental figures as Bartok and Schoenberg; later
composition studies with John Ireland at the Royal College of
Music were therefore disappointing. A project to study with Berg
in Vienna in 1934 fell through, but the success of his Variations on a theme of
Frank Bridge at the 1937 Salzburg Festival
established Britten on the international scene.
At the same time Britten was writing documentary him music for
the postal service, as part of a team which included the poet W.H.
Auden, with whom he went on to collaborate on other projects. When
Auden left for the United States in 1939, Britten followed,
together with the singer Peter Pears. Pears became his lifelong
companion and lover, and their artistic relationship proved
uncommonly fruitful. They were ardent pacifists and conscientious
objectors during World War II and, after returning to England in
1942, toured as a duo (with Britten at the piano) giving concerts
in hospitals and bombed areas.
During the war Britten worked on his first major opera,
Peter Grimes, based on George Crabbe s depiction of a rough
yet poetic fisherman as an outsider m a closed community. The
music shows Britten's huge talent for scene-setting, especially in
the four orchestral Sea interludes that capture the austere
atmosphere of the Suffolk coast. Peter Grimes also reveals
a typical sympathy with his main character, the violent and
tragically complex Grimes, sung by Pears in the first production
in I 945.
The work was an instant success and Britten's operatic output
tor the rest of his life was prolific. Several works are chamber
operas, among them The turn of the screw and The rape of
Liicretia, for which he formed the English Opera Group in
1946; they were often performed at the Aldeburgh Festival,
inaugurated in 1948. He and Pears settled in this Suffolk coastal
town, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Britten
composed two full-scale operas for Covent Garden, Billy Budd
(1952) and Gloriana (1953), and the ballet The prince of the pagodas
Britten's pacifism re-emerged with the War requiem,
written in 1962 for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry
Cathedral. Probably his greatest work for the concert hall, it
combines the requiem text with the war poems of Wilfred Owen.
Here, again. Britten shows his genius for matching significant
music to the subject.
Britten and Pears were great travellers, visiting Shostakovich
and the cellist Rostropovich in the Soviet Union. Their tour of
the Far East included Bali, where Britten was deeply impressed by
the traditional gamelan music. He used gamelan effects extensively
m his final opera. Death in Venice (1973), based on Thomas
Mann's novella. Again he identified with his mam character,
Aschenbach, whose one-sided infatuation with the boy Tadzio
(played by a dancer) is expressed largely in soliloquy. It was
Pears's most demanding role.
By the time Death in Venice was completed Britten's
health was failing and he returned to smaller-scale instrumental
music with the still forward-looking Third string quartet
(1975). In the year of his death, he became the first British
musician to receive a peerage in recognition of his achievements.