Introduction

A renowned classic music composer, soloist and director, Benjamin Britten was born in England, on November 22, 1913. Even in his childhood, he was actively involved in music, composing his first works at the tender age of five. From then on he progressed in creativity and composition even though he had no form of technical training in music.

However, his mother was a part time singer and she aided his growth in approach and musical content. “The Royal Falily” is one of his well known compositions in his early childhood, which was about the death of the fifth son of George V in 1919.

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Educational background

Frank Bridge, who was a well known music composer, became interested in Britten while he was still very young. Frank had a passion for developing innovative styles of music which led him to see the unique qualities of Britten’s work [1]. Frank was therefore in a sense responsible for mentoring Bitten, providing him with the technical understanding that Bitten needed to create quality compositions.

The only well known institution that Britten enrolled into was the Royal College of Music in 1930 with a goal of studying musical composition and the piano under the tutorship of Arthur Benjamin, John Ireland and Harold Samuel [2]. It was here that his work begun receiving acclaim, for he went on to receive numerous awards for compositions like a “Boy was Born”, in 1933.

Musical career

From April 1935, Britten adopted music as a profession when he took on the job of creating music for documentary films produced by the General Post Office (GPO). It was here that he met W.H. Auden in July 1935, and they went on to work on several projects together while at GPO, including the films Coal Face, Night Mail and the song series “Our Hunting Fathers”.

Auden was a brilliant poet who went on to influence much of Britten’s 1942 composition; “Hymn to St. Cecilia” [3]. It is while still working at GPO when Britten met Peter Pears in 1937, who later became his musical collaborator and a source for musical inspiration. It was in that same year that he composed “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” for string orchestra, one of his most remarkable works.

Move to America

The primary reason that made Britten move to America in 1939 was that at the time, Auden had immigrated to America. Another reason is that he was disgruntled by the cold reception that his work “A Pacifist March” had received, after he had composed it for the Peace Pledge Union [4].

Along with his friend Peter Pears, they set off for the United States and eventually settled in Amityville, Long Island, New York. In 1940, Pears inspired Britten to composed “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo”, the first among many songs that he would dedicate to Pears.

His stay in America consequently influenced Britten, who together with Auden wrote an operetta, “Paul Bunyan” a musical drama which was followed by a number of works like “the Violin Concerto” and “Sinfonia da Requiem” for orchestra performance [5]. In 1943, Britten together with Pears returned to England and went on to release “Hymn to St. Cecilia” which he had composed on his trip back from America in March, 1942 and shortly after his return, in 1943, he composed “Rejoice in the La” [6].

Famous works

A unique quality that can among others be identified in Britten is his consistency. Through out his life, Brittan went on to write and compose music till his death in 1976. However, some of his works went ahead to receive great public acclaim and consequently won Britten a great number of prizes and awards. Britten’s most popular works include; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Peter Grimes” and “The War Requiem”.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is an opera by set to a libretto and was modified by Benjamin Britten together with Peter Pears and was drawn from William Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

The sound is highly individual and harmoniously subtle and riddled with tenor undertones. Unlike most of his other works, Peter Pears did not assume a leading role on stage, as an alternative he took up the comical character of Flute. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” won Britten the 1961 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers Award.

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes is also an opera with the libretto having been modified by Montagu Slater. The original Peter Grimes was from a section of George Crabbe’s poem “The Borough”. It is highly thought that the main reason why Britten moved back to England from America is because of this poem, because he strongly related with the misfortune of the fisherman named Peter Grimes [7]. However, Britten altered the personality of Grimes from the antagonist he was in Crabbe’s poem, to a victim of social injustices who is wrongly understood.

In this opera, the “borough” is a fictional village which shares the same scenario with that of Crabbe and also to that of Aldeburgh, on England’s east coast, where in fact, Britten lived at the time. The opera therefore had several innuendos pointing at Britten’s and Pears’ life. In a broader sense, Peter Grimes was the first opera composed by Britten that was professionally criticized and popular among the public.

The War Requiem

The War Requiem was written for the commemoration of Coventry Cathedral where it was first performed on 30 May 1962. The core of this composition was full of pacifist signatures mainly so because the Battle of Britain in World War II had left the Coventry Cathedral completely ruined [8].

Britten was requested to compose something to be performed at the ceremony to officially announce the completion of a new cathedral which was designed by Basil Spence and was built next to the ruins of the original structure [9]. Bearing in mind that the work was to be presented inside the new cathedral, acoustics were definitely to be included since Brittan was an accomplished acoustic pianist. The ceremony was graced by a number of Britten’s works, including Tippett’s opera King Priam.

The War Requiem was dedicated to four of Britten’s friends who were killed during World War I, and was used to send a strong pacifist message. It was not a glorification of the British troops, rather a public declaration of Britten’s anti-war convictions. This piece pointed out to others the wickedness of war, and not necessarily the wickedness of human beings [10].

Britten wrote the War Requiem for a German, a Russian and a British soloist, meaning he viewed war as a universal loss and not just loss to his home country, and therefore emphasized the need for unity and peace.

Effectively, the War Requiem was as well intended to serve as a warning to future generations, negating the absurdity of taking up arms against fellow human beings. Among all of his works, The War Requiem has by far been deemed the most popular to this day. Consequently, he went on to receive numerous awards due to this piece even after his death.

Some of the prizes he received are “Grammy Awards 1963 – Classical Album of the Year”, “Grammy Awards 1963 – Best Classical Performance”, “Grammy Awards 1963 – Best Classical Composition by a Contemporary Composer”, Sonning Award 1967, “BRIT Awards 1977 – Best Orchestral Album” and the “Grammy Hall of Fame Award in1998”.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Benjamin Britten was a gifted individual when it came to music. Apart from being a skilled pianist, he composed some remarkable works and was also a music conductor. He drew inspiration from the people he surrounded himself with like Peter Pears and the poet Auden.

Britten did however face rejection from other composers whom did no find his style trendy. He was forced to move away from London due to the rejection which can be seen in most of his work. Most of his leading characters are misunderstood by the society that they are in and it is possible that he was pointing at himself. All in all, Britten’s work will surely prevail for a long time for his compositions are performed.

References

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Kennedy, Michael. Britten Works. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981.

[1] Humphrey Carpenter. Benjamin Britten: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), p. 32
[2] Michael Kennedy. Britten (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981), p. 21.
[3] Peter Evans. The Music of Benjamin Britten (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), p. 54.
[4] Humphrey Carpenter. Benjamin Britten: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), p. 38.
[5] Peter Evans. The Music of Benjamin Britten (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), p. 54.
[6] Michael Kennedy. Britten (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981), p. 46.
[7] Michael Kennedy. Britten (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981), p. 75.
[8] Michael Kennedy. Britten (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981), p. 117.
[9] Peter Evans. The Music of Benjamin Britten (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), p. 54.
[10] Michael Kennedy. Britten (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1981), p. 21.