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  (Edward) Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), by Sir Cecil Beaton (Edward) Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), by Sir Cecil Beaton
Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Baron Britten (1913–1976), composer, was born on 22 November 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the youngest of the four children (two sons and two daughters) of Robert Victor Britten (1878–1934), a dental surgeon, and his wife, Edith Rhoda (1874–1937), the daughter of Henry William Hockey, king's messenger at the Home Office in London. After her marriage Britten's mother proved herself to be an active amateur singer and pianist, and she became the secretary of the Lowestoft Choral Society. There was much music-making in the home, where her younger son participated as accompanist, and sometimes as a composer, in events that on occasion took the shape of musical soirées, attended by family and friends.

Early influences

There can be no doubt that his mother was the dominant influence on Britten's early years. The child's first musical experiences would have been hearing his mother sing, and it cannot be altogether accidental that song, in its broadest sense, and more specifically the relationship of words to music—their colour, their rhythm—was to form so large a part of the œuvre he created in his maturity. This was a reason, too, no doubt, for his eventual choice of an aspiring and gifted young tenor, , as his lifelong companion, about whose voice a close friend from the Lowestoft years remarked that it recalled in character the voice of his mother. While recognizing the importance of the maternal influence it would be a mistake to exaggerate it. Some of Britten's most remarkable compositions are to be found among his chamber music and his orchestral works, and while it is certainly true that songs are prominent among his earliest compositions, so too are numerous string quartets, many sonatas for piano, and a by no means inconsiderable array of attempts at large-scale orchestral works. One must be ever wary in Britten's case of drawing too strict parallels between life and art. His prodigious musical gifts, which declared themselves at an astonishingly early age—a legitimate and meaningful parallel here with Mozart and Mendelssohn—undoubtedly in themselves would have constituted a prime influence, in particular his exploration of the absolutely basic materials of music—scales, triads, and so forth—at the keyboard. It was his mother who gave him his first music lessons, but in 1921 she was succeeded by a local piano teacher, Ethel Astle. It is prudent to remember that Britten's childhood prowess at the keyboard meant that in his very early youth his musical career (if there were to be one) was probably envisaged as that of a successful pianist. The commitment to composing came later, though it is highly likely that the boy himself had already made the decision significantly in advance of the rest of his family. From the age of thirteen or fourteen his unusual compositional gift and creative ambition were recognized, and his mother in particular was active in drawing attention to them. A key work here among Britten's juvenilia is the sequence of Quatre chansons françaises (1928) for high voice and orchestra, dedicated ‘To Mr & Mrs R. V. Britten on the twenty-seventh anniversary of their wedding’.

There can be no doubt that Britten's mother cherished and nourished the extraordinary talents of her youngest child as the years progressed. It is perhaps less easy to reach so clear-cut a conclusion about his relationship with his father, who could be inflexible and a shade daunting and was perhaps more anxious than his wife about his son's future. This may have created a certain tension between them, but what should be recalled is Britten's note in his diary after his father's death in 1934—‘A great man with one of the finest minds I have ever come across & what a father!’ (Letters, 1.334)—and Mr Britten's salute to his son in a letter in 1933, on hearing news of a rehearsal of his op. 3, A Boy was Born (1933), the work that was one of Britten's early choral masterpieces: ‘Hearty congratulations! over and over again and also envy & jealousy … Go on my son. Your very loving & admiring Pop’ (ibid., 1.310). ‘Envy and jealousy’: a strange choice of words! The work in fact was dedicated ‘To my Father’. Of the Brittens' other children, two girls, Barbara and Elizabeth (Beth), and a boy (Britten's elder brother, Robert), it was only Robert who showed a specific musical talent: he played the violin. In temperament and character Robert was perhaps closer to his father. There was never an easy relationship between the two brothers, but it was for Robert and the school of which he was headmaster that Britten wrote his Friday Afternoons, op. 7 (1935), one of the first of his works for children's voices. Neither of the two sisters had pronounced musical abilities. Barbara, the elder, became a health visitor and settled down in life with a woman companion, while Beth married and wrote a vivid and valuable memoir of family life in Lowestoft after her brother's death. Britten maintained affectionate relationships with both sisters and especially with Beth's children, though her problematic temperament was to cause him much anxiety and stress in later years. His closest relatives, however, were of fundamental importance to the evolution and character of his first steps in composition. After all, they were his first patrons and performers, and many of his juvenilia were written for their use.

In 1923 Britten entered South Lodge preparatory school, Lowestoft, and began viola lessons with Audrey Alston. The viola was not only to be Britten's own instrument for the rest of his life but also the string instrument to which he assigned some of his most expressive and intimate inspirations, for example Lachrymae, op. 48, for viola and piano (later arranged for viola and string orchestra), and the prominent solo role as the ‘voice’ of the suffering Apprentice in the great orchestral passacaglia from Peter Grimes, op. 33. His prodigious talent for music—he passed grade eight of the Associated Board piano examination at the age of twelve—did not affect his conventional school success: he was academically bright, was an excellent and enthusiastic sportsman—he was vice-captain of the cricket team and in 1955, when describing his schooldays, made special mention of his love for the game—and became head boy in 1927. It has long been assumed that these preparatory school years were largely happy and unclouded. But , the librettist of Albert Herring, one of the original founders of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and a close collaborator of Britten and Pears in many similar and related activities, left a personal memoir in which he claimed that Britten had told him that he had been ‘raped’ by ‘a teacher’ at school. The fact of Crozier's claim has to be recorded. But one has to add that if true, it seems remarkable that there has been no shred of supporting evidence from quarters closer to Britten than Crozier—Peter Pears, for example, who after Britten's death often referred to his companion's ‘idyllic’ childhood; and Pears was never uncomfortable in discussing with friends his and his partner's homosexuality. It seems scarcely conceivable that Britten would not have mentioned this incident to Pears, or, if he did, that Pears would not have said a word about it to anyone before he himself died. A classic instance this, one might think, of what Brian Vickers has named ‘surmise ex silentio’.

What is established is the fuss that attended Britten's leaving his prep school, caused by an essay in which he argued against hunting, thus revealing his budding pacifist and humanist convictions. The choice of Gresham's School, Holt (in Norfolk)—at the height of its reputation as a ‘progressive’ public school—reflected his parents' desire to find an environment that would accommodate his views and neither stifle nor disparage his musical gifts. Whatever its merits, Gresham's was not altogether a happy experience: the music teaching and activities—his diaries make frequent caustic references to performances by his teachers—fell far below his expectations and standards. ‘So you are the boy who likes Stravinsky!’ (Beth Britten, My Brother, 27) was the unpromising welcome he had from Walter Greatorex, the music master, about whom Britten confided to his mother that ‘no two notes were together’ in what Greatorex himself played on the piano, with ‘a gripping touch, and terrible tone’ (Letters, 1.30). None the less, it was during these years that Britten's own creative gift underwent expansion and exploration: the juvenilia of the period clearly show him attempting in work after work to establish a language, a style, that could form a basis for the future. The process at the time would have been largely unconscious. In retrospect, however, the most overtly ‘experimental’ period in Britten's compositional life can be seen to have belonged, paradoxically, to his schooldays. In the two Portraits for strings he composed at this time the span of his linguistic explorations may be heard, the first pressing hard at and beyond the limits of strict tonality, the second a self-portrait (a solo viola takes the lead) conceived in a reflective, almost pastoral mode. In short, the music from his school years reveals far more about the evolution of the composer Britten was to become than his school reports.

First compositions

That his gift was technically so advanced by the time he left Gresham's was not exclusively Britten's own doing. A very large debt was owed to the teaching of the composer Frank Bridge, whom he had first met in 1927. From Bridge he acquired the integrity of his technique, his professionalism, and his awareness of the ‘new’ music in Europe, Berg's in particular. Bridge was himself a viola player and a pacifist—reasons for an immediate sympathy between master and pupil—and Britten was to regard him as his ‘musical conscience’ throughout his creative life. In 1930 Britten won an open scholarship to the Royal College of Music, London. At Bridge's insistence he studied with another composer, John Ireland, while continuing at the college his piano lessons with Arthur Benjamin (1893–1960), having previously studied the piano, for about a year, with Harold Samuel (1879–1937). Britten was an industrious, conscientious, and ambitious student, twice winning the Ernest Farrar composition prize (1931 and 1933) and funds (though not the award) from the Mendelssohn scholarship; but in general the college years seemed to duplicate the musical discouragement, frustrations, and disappointments that he had encountered at Gresham's. There is no doubt that his precocity proved a heavy burden for the youth to carry; in the eyes and ears of many, his prolific creativity gave rise to deep-seated suspicions of shallow ‘cleverness’—‘too clever by half’ was an attitude that pervaded much opinion and commentary from this period. Worst of all, there was little recognition at the college of his compositional achievements in terms of performance. What was heard—two works in all—was badly played. ‘I have never heard such an appalling row!’ he remarked of the rehearsals of his Sinfonietta, op. 1 (Letters, 1.276). Britten had a very long memory, and the impact of this débâcle stayed with him to the end of his life. It was in fact his life outside the college—London's music, including the famous Macnaghten–Lemare concerts, as well as cinemas and theatres—that gave him the enlarged horizons that influenced his development.

John Grierson, the innovative head of the General Post Office film unit, employed Britten—on the recommendation of the college—to write some film music, and he soon became in effect the unit's resident composer and music editor. He found himself in sympathy with the pronouncedly leftish social and political preoccupations of the unit and significantly assisted in the development of the documentary film. In 1935 began his collaboration with W. H. Auden (1907–1973), then working for the unit as script writer and occasional director, on two of the most memorable of British documentary films, Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936). The scores that Britten wrote for these films make a highly original contribution to the history of music for the cinema. Each employed only tiny resources, but his exploitation of them introduced all manner of innovations, some of which foreshadow the techniques and modification of materials associated with the much later development of musique concrète, but to precisely reverse effect; Britten, that is, achieves miracles of realistic sound out of his electronic manipulation and treatment of his assembly of eccentric ‘instruments’. The percussion ensemble assembled for Coal Face included ‘blocks of wood, chains, rewinders, cups of water, etc., etc.’—‘entirely experimental stuff’, as Britten himself described it. He was to compose a more conventionally conceived score for the only full-length feature film in which he was involved: this was Love from a Stranger (1937), starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone. Film, thereafter, claimed relatively little of his attention, though out of his last contribution to this field—Instruments of the Orchestra (1945)—was born a work, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which has influenced generations of the young persons for whom it was written—both to edify and to entertain, as Britten's dedication characteristically puts it—as well as winning a permanent place in the orchestral repertory worldwide.

Of enduring importance, clearly, for the composer of opera that Britten was to become was the experience he gained in the film studio of the pacing and characterization of dramatic events, reinforced by participation in Rupert Doone's famous thirties theatrical venture, the Group Theatre, for which he wrote much incidental music. Among the most celebrated Group Theatre productions were two collaborative dramas by Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986), The Ascent of F6 (1937) and On the Frontier (1938), for both of which Britten wrote substantial musical numbers. It was during these years that Auden's profound influence on Britten was at its height. He was not only hugely to widen the composer's literary and above all poetic interests but he also, in his role as apostle incarnate of bohemianism, blew away any vestiges of provinciality still clinging to Britten, who about this time was probably beginning to acknowledge and accept his homosexual nature. It seems likely that Britten found it difficult, or was reluctant, to commit himself physically in sexual relationships. Auden in this context was an ever-present and minatory counsellor; as he wrote himself in 1938, ‘It's better to sleep two than single; it's better to be happy’—advice that Britten was ready to accept, but not before he had found the right partner.

To all this activity in the film studio and theatre, and for radio—collectively amounting to an œuvre in its own right, one not only of specific period interest but, more importantly, a direct product of what were then new communication technologies (film, radio)—Britten was strangely indifferent in later years. What gave him satisfaction, undoubtedly, was the fulfilment it permitted him of entering full-time employment as a composer without any transitional intermission. But in tandem, of course, with this rich mass of incidental music—among British composers of Britten's generation, without precedent—and in some cases preceding it, there was a steady flow of key works destined for the concert hall. Among these were the Sinfonietta, his op. 1 (1932), an early manifestation of his preference for chamber-like instrumental textures and proportions; A Boy was Born (1933), the virtuosic choral demands of which continue to present a challenge to performers even though the century in which it was written has come to an end; and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), for string orchestra, in which his innovative exploitation of the strings and mastery of variation form—each variation was in fact a portrait of his revered teacher, a programme that Britten kept hidden—won him international recognition at the Salzburg Festival of 1937. Even earlier successes outside England had been at International Society for Contemporary Music festivals at Florence (1934) and Barcelona (1936).

To 1936 belongs the first of Britten's orchestral song cycles, Our Hunting Fathers, one of the major fruits of his friendship and collaboration with Auden, who devised its text. The virtuoso instrumental textures of this brilliant work guarantee it a special place in the history and evolution of British orchestral music, and the same can be said of Britten's phenomenally challenging vocal writing. This was indeed a young man's music, taking no account of the performing skills available to him or the prevailing—and conservative—musical culture of the time. (It is scarcely to be believed that this was the first orchestral music of his own making that Britten had actually heard to date.) Furthermore—and one thinks back to the rebellious prep school essay on hunting—the work was fired by his and his poet companion's impassioned reaction both to the Spanish Civil War, then at its height, and to the threat of European fascism, and by his own extravagantly burgeoning genius. It was no accident that the image of the hunt is central to the concluding song, a setting of words by Thomas Ravenscroft entitled ‘Dance of Death’. This erupts finally in a frenzied interlude for orchestra alone of Bergian intensity, and the last words to be heard after the tumult has subsided are just two: ‘German, Jew’. The work met with total incomprehension at its première at Norwich, on 25 September 1936, after a chaotic rehearsal with the London Philharmonic Orchestra of the day; its members simply could not believe that the young composer's intentions should be taken seriously. It was nearly fourteen years or so before the work was heard again. It is now recognized as one of the very few major statements about the history and politics of the thirties made before the war by a British composer, not just a document of the times but a fierce condemnation of them.

North America

Despite some indications at least of an eventual career of high achievement, Britten, with the singer Peter Pears, left England for North America in May 1939, going first to Canada and then to New York. Various factors influenced this decision: the worsening political situation; the success Britten's former teacher, Frank Bridge, had enjoyed in the United States; the persuasive examples of Auden and Isherwood, who had already emigrated; loosening family ties (his father had died in 1934, his mother in 1937); discouraging reviews of his music in the English press; often inadequate performance standards; and, from 1937, the growth of his friendship with Pears. Undoubtedly too, Pears as an aspiring singer, and Britten as an ambitious young composer, on the threshold of his career and in search of new stimulus and new channels for his creativity, had it in mind to assess for themselves what the New World might have to offer.

It was in fact in Grand Rapids in June 1939 that Britten made the unreserved physical commitment to Pears, the liberation to which Auden for so long had been prompting Britten in poems addressed to him. It proved to be an exemplary relationship, both personal—their mutual passion survived until the very end of Britten's life—and musical: ‘Peter Pears accompanied by Benjamin Britten’ developed into one of the most distinguished and celebrated voice and piano duos of the century. Their Winterreise (Schubert) and Dichterliebe (Schumann), for example, were but two classical masterpieces their performances of which were unique examples of re-creation and renewal. It was during these American years that Britten wrote his first cycle for Pears, the famous Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first of the long sustained stream of works conceived for Pears's voice and, not less, his astonishing ability not just to articulate words but to use them to colour the pitches of which they formed an integral and, above all, musical part. It was the beginning too of Britten's significant interest in and revival of Purcell: his realizations of Purcell's vocal music were motivated by his developing a recital repertory, in which Pears was his partner (as were his folk-song arrangements). On the other hand, the American period marked the end of Britten's career as a solo pianist. The United States première of his piano concerto, which he gave in 1940 in Chicago, was effectively his last public appearance in a solo role in the concert hall; thereafter he was heard only in chamber music and vocal music, almost always with very close musical colleagues.

For two and three-quarter years Britten and Pears lived mainly on Long Island, at Amityville, where they shared the family home and life of Dr William Mayer and his wife, Elizabeth (1884–1970), the latter a friend too of Auden, with whom she later made a translation of Goethe's Italienische Reise. They moved briefly in 1940 to a house in Brooklyn, 7 Middagh Street, which was to enjoy fame for its literary and musical associations and a bohemian lifestyle, over which Auden presided as proxy landlord. This was not much to their taste, and they spent the summer of 1941 at Escondido, California. As it happened, Britten suffered a serious composing block—as he remembered it, a ‘complete incapacity’ to work—towards the end of his sojourn in North America, but despite this the list of works completed or composed is impressive: it includes Les illuminations (it was Auden who had earlier introduced Britten to Rimbaud); the first string quartet; Sinfonia da requiem, given its first performance by the New York Philharmonic under John Barbirolli; and Diversions, for piano (left hand) and orchestra, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Sinfonia had been preceded by the first performance at Carnegie Hall of the violin concerto.

Serious attention, without doubt, was beginning to be paid to Britten's music in the USA, and a further bid, of a particularly significant kind, was made in a unique collaboration from this period, the composition of Paul Bunyan, an operetta, so-called, based on the famous American folk-hero. Auden wrote an inimitably brilliant and witty libretto, in turn funny and profoundly moving, while Britten, with the exercise of comparable skills, ingeniously and inventively explored the language and styles of popular American music, including country music (such as the narrator's ballads accompanied by guitar). Britten and Auden even had an eye on the ear of Broadway, though ultimately the work received its first production by a semi-professional company on the campus of Columbia University, New York, on 5 May 1941. It was a flop, generally derided by local critics. Britten and Auden contemplated revisions, but the process was halted by the composer's return to England; moreover, his experience of working with Auden on the operetta had begun to indicate that all was not altogether plain sailing as far as future collaborations were concerned—and such at length proved to be the case. But nothing can take away from the importance of the operetta as Britten's very first full-length work for the stage. At the end of his life he revised it himself and would doubtless have been gratified, if surprised, by the success it has since enjoyed, above all its triumphant revival in New York—and on Broadway!—at the New York City Opera in 1998.

Peter Grimes

While in California in 1941, Britten and Pears's attention had been drawn to George Crabbe's The Borough by an article by E. M. Forster in The Listener, and in particular to that part of Crabbe's poem entitled ‘Peter Grimes’. This led to the composition of Britten's first opera proper of the same title, with a libretto based on Crabbe by Montagu Slater, an old friend and collaborator from Britten's pre-war activities in the left-wing theatre. In the meantime, and an indication of the heightening of Britten's profile in America, Serge Koussevitsky had conducted the Sinfonia da requiem in Boston and was clearly impressed by the composer's potential, perhaps especially his sense of the dramatic. As a result, the Koussevitsky Foundation commissioned Britten to write his new opera, and substantial thought was given to the project before Britten and Pears's return to England in March 1942. It was a return motivated by anxiety at wartime separation from friends and relatives and a profound sense of deracination on Britten's part, further deepened by his chance encounter with Crabbe's narratives, rooted as they were in Britten's own Suffolk. When the Second World War had broken out in September 1939, Britten and Pears were advised officially not to attempt a return, and it was not until March 1942 that they succeeded in making the perilous crossing of the Atlantic from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. During the journey Britten worked away at completing his setting of Auden's Hymn to St. Cecilia. Despite the claustrophobic below-deck circumstances of a wartime crossing, what emerged was an unaccompanied choral work celebrating music and creativity, remarkable for its technical perfection and the innocent radiance of its inspirations, a reminder of what C major still had to offer. Yet another choral work was also done: A Ceremony of Carols, for treble voices and harp, destined to become one of the best loved and most widely performed of Britten's choral works and one in which for the first time on so elaborate a scale he employed boys' voices (the precedents here were Friday Afternoons and the suite of Rossini arrangements originally written as the soundtrack for an animated silhouette film of Lotte Reiniger's and later, in revised form, to win fame in the concert hall as the Soirées musicales of 1936). Thereafter, works for children or works which included children as performers occupied increasing space in Britten's output, among them the miniature opera The Little Sweep, from Let's make an Opera (1949), Noye's Fludde (1958), a setting of the Chester miracle play that was also a major step along the road to the church parables of the 1960s, The Golden Vanity (1966), and Children's Crusade (1969). In this category, special mention has to be made of The Turn of the Screw, the chamber opera of 1954, in which the crucial role of Miles is allotted to a treble.

In the première of that opera the role of Miles was undertaken by David Hemmings, with whom, it has been reliably suggested, Britten became ‘infatuated’, although it seems that Hemmings at the time was unaware of this. Hemmings himself, who later became a celebrated stage and screen actor, has described the infatuation in terms that might well be realistically applied to all of Britten's relationships with boys: ‘In all of the time that I spent with him he never abused that trust’ (BBC2, 13 Aug 1994). Interestingly enough, Michael Crawford, a well-known actor and stage personality whose career, like that of Hemmings, owes much to his early encouragement by Britten (having had roles in both The Little Sweep and Noye's Fludde), wrote in his autobiography (1999):
I cannot say enough about the kindness of that great man … [He] was the pre-eminent British composer of his time and he had a wonderful patience and affinity with young people. He loved music, and loved youngsters caring about music. (Crawford, 43)
There can be no doubt that young boys—‘thin-as-a-board juveniles … sexless and innocent’, as Auden put it in a famous letter to Britten in 1942—made a powerful sexual appeal to Britten, and much discussion of this predilection followed in the wake of his death. It is probably unrealistic to suggest that Hemmings's and Crawford's should be accepted as the last words on a topic that since Britten's death has consumed far too much space and time and generated an excess of speculation. But at least a plea can be entered for a sense of proportion; the meaning and significance of Britten's works, prodigious in quantity and diversity, should be sought in themselves alone, not in some supposed explanatory parallel between life and art.

When back in England, Britten and Pears registered as conscientious objectors. Both men held strong pacifist convictions of long standing. Pears was successful on making his first appearance before the tribunal. Britten, however, was not granted the unconditional exemption he sought, and appealed. The first statement of his position he made to the tribunal is of fundamental importance to the understanding of his pacifist philosophy; in addition it throws light on the much-debated topic of his specifically ‘religious’ beliefs. In fact, Britten informed the tribunal first time round that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ and had not attended church during the preceding five years. He spelt out, in his written submission, that ‘The whole of my life has been devoted to a life of creation (being by profession a composer) and I cannot take part in acts of destruction’ (Letters, 2.1046). This clearly defined principle not only had immediate consequences for his day-to-day musical activities but was to surface prominently in his creative thinking in the years ahead. On appeal, he was granted exemption on the condition that he gave concerts with Pears for the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA). Already on the Atlantic crossing Britten had shown the preoccupation with English word-setting that characterized much of his music for the rest of his life, a pronounced thrust that was to mark the works that were composed between 1942 and 1945. Two of them, his second song cycle for voice and orchestra, the Serenade (1943) for tenor, horn, and strings, and the opera Peter Grimes (1945), brought Britten to the forefront of public and critical attention. In particular, the opera established an unprecedented international reputation for a British composer and constituted the memorable and indeed monumental first step in the creation of a national tradition of opera. The momentum generated by Grimes continues even as the twenty-first century begins. The Serenade, with its two virtuoso soloists, one vocal, one instrumental, was a magical exercise in nocturnal imagery and matching sonorities, supremely lyrical but executed with a challenging technical sophistication. The work was almost immediately recognized as the masterpiece it is. Typically, in a letter written even before the première, Britten described it as ‘not important stuff, but quite pleasant, I think’ (Letters, 2.1144). Grimes, too, of course, has its lyrical moments, but the Serenade would hardly have prepared anyone for the savagery of Grimes, its dramatic power and the skill with which Britten managed the very large vocal and orchestral forces involved. While it is perfectly true, as is often said, that in the opera Britten reaffirms his Suffolk roots, perhaps more importantly it remains a work in which he unequivocally asserts his European roots. He had by no means put behind him the European stylizations embodied by such crucial works as Les illuminations, the Michelangelo sonnets, and Sinfonia da requiem. It is indeed the symphonies of Mahler, Alban Berg's Wozzeck, and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District that stand behind, but do not overshadow, Grimes. Indeed, the last act of Britten's opera contains a ‘mad’ scene, a phenomenal recapitulatory cadenza virtually for the solo voice alone, which must count as one of the most audacious concepts in twentieth-century opera.

Grimes is exceptional too in that its narrative is tightly focused on the outsider, the nonconformist, the social reject. Philip Brett, in his pioneering study of the work, has drawn attention to the parallel that can be drawn here with Britten's own experience as a homosexual in an often virulently homophobic society. It is undoubtedly a painfully relevant point, but of course it is the power of Britten as an artist that he can universalize his theme and make it directly meaningful to humanity at large. The Europeanism of the opera's style was surely an additional factor that helped establish the work on an international scale. One notes, however, the peculiar irony of so bleak and pessimistic a work being given its première at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 7 June 1945, at the very time that the allies were celebrating their military triumph in Europe. (The paradox only emphasizes that one of Britten's distinguishing features was his pessimism.) Furthermore, this was a work composed by a pacifist, whose beliefs, sexuality, and absence in the USA had not only been the subject of hostile comment but at one stage were the preoccupation of a dissenting group at the theatre, who threatened the opera's launch and succeeded in preventing its immediate revival at the Wells—sorry proof of the discouraging parochialism still prevalent in post-war English musical culture.

All this makes of quite special significance the tour of the German concentration camps in which Britten, very much on his insistence, accompanied, both musically (at the piano) and personally, the remarkable violinist Yehudi Menuhin. This harrowing experience left its mark on the music written immediately in its aftermath, in particular the sometimes distraught settings of the Holy Sonnets of John Donne (op. 35). As Menuhin himself later observed, Britten clearly felt the need to experience at first hand the suffering that war had brought to his fellow humans and from which his unshakeable pacifist convictions had excluded him. There can be no doubt that the War Requiem, composed in 1961 for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, a work that perhaps exceeded even Grimes in the impact it made virtually worldwide, also reflected the horror and compassion generated by the tour of the camps; but it should also be remembered that while this was, as it had to be, a unique experience, compositionally speaking there had preceded it, from the 1930s onwards, a significant quantity of music in which Britten had unequivocally demonstrated his resistance to and condemnation of acts of war and personal violence. Thus it is that the War Requiem, which so captured the public imagination and mood of the 1960s that it became virtually an icon of the period, perhaps particularly for the younger generations, was in fact not something new but the consummation of a long-established creative ideology. Nor was it an end: the requiem was succeeded until the time of Britten's death by works of diverse character, in all of which in some way or another was expressed his preoccupation with violence, among them Voices for Today, commissioned by the United Nations for its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1965, and which led to the memorable meeting in New York the following year between the composer and the then secretary-general of the UN, U Thant. In 1970, in this same context, Britten undertook what proved to be his penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, after a story by Henry James. He had many times been asked to consider an opera for television. It was altogether characteristic of him that, when the BBC finally secured a positive response, he seized the opportunity to exploit the mass medium for the first time to challenge the conventions and traditions of militarism, especially that form of it rooted in dynasties. On its first transmission in 1971, the opera was seen and heard in at least thirteen countries, a global mass audience to match the mass medium for which the work was conceived. After its launch, the work was occasionally performed in the theatre, but it was not until 2001 that a new film was made for television by Channel 4. The advances in film technology since the première were imaginatively explored to make the opera's anti-militarist message clear and meaningful to television audiences in the new century.

Chamber opera

Both Wingrave and its successor, Death in Venice (1973), amply illumine Britten's late style and the many innovations he had introduced into the musical theatre spanning three decades of prodigious fertility. Post-Grimes his operas continually explored new paths. Already, in 1946, as a result of an invitation from John Christie, he had composed The Rape of Lucretia, commissioned to reopen post-war Glyndebourne. What was startlingly new here was the concept of chamber opera—opera wanting nothing in the virtuosity demanded of the singers and players but involving relatively slender forces (a maximum instrumental ensemble of thirteen players). Lucretia took as its theme ravaged innocence, to which Britten returned again and again in his œuvre, in many guises and contrasting genres. His second chamber opera, Albert Herring, looked at innocence from quite another angle. The opera's protagonist, Albert, has to free himself from his domineering mother—not only free himself, indeed, but find himself. That voyage of self-discovery had certainly been part of Britten's own experience and profoundly enriches the humane comedy of Herring. The serious underside of the opera, already anticipated in the second half of act II, breaks surface at the end of act III, the great threnody in which the supposed death of the absent Albert is mourned—an audacious dénouement that was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted when the work was first heard. The last of the trinity of chamber operas was an arrangement—‘realization’, to use Britten's own term—of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, a coruscatingly brilliant exercise in digging out the totally unexpected from what were often ‘traditional’ tunes, often by contrapuntal means, canon especially. Here, as also in his many folk-song arrangements for voice and piano or orchestra, Britten, by treating the melodies as if he had composed them himself, succeeds in creating a work wholly in his own musical image. This is an opera which remains much underestimated. Its dazzling counterpoint alone secures it a special place in the evolution of Britten's compositional techniques.

The new concept of chamber opera was an idea—better, an ideal—that Britten had thought out even before Grimes, and one should not think that its materialization was, au fond, other than the development of a powerful creative preference. None the less, there were other factors involved that had long-term consequences with regard to the character and dissemination of Britten's own works and, above all, their authentic performance; in addition there was a serious ambition to detach himself from the ethos of ‘grand opera’ and create a format that would make opera more accessible to the public at large, especially by means of touring. Thus the foundation of the English Opera Group with a group of close colleagues in 1947 represented an intricate combination of aesthetic, economic, and socio-political motivations. Herring, the second of the three chamber operas to be played at Glyndebourne, was in fact the first of the works to be launched under the banner of the new company. Thereafter, with only very occasional exceptions, Britten's musico-theatrical works were written for and first performed by the group. However, it was not Britten's works alone that were the group's preoccupation. Fundamental to the ambition and aesthetic of the organization was the systematic commissioning—and subsequent touring, at home and abroad—of new chamber operas from both established and aspiring composers, among them Lennox Berkeley, Harrison Birtwistle, Gordon Crosse, Thea Musgrave, Arthur Oldham, William Walton, and Malcolm Williamson. This was a brave and serious attempt to discover new talent and give body to the new tradition of English opera initiated by Grimes in an economically viable format that might win new audiences in locations which in the past had had no opportunity to experience opera. There was a further intention that must not be overlooked, with once again very long-term consequences for Britten's own development and for musical culture in Britain during the latter half of the twentieth century. He had always found it congenial to create and himself perform in the context of close collaborations with friends. The formation of the English Opera Group meant that the design, stage direction, and vocal and instrumental resources were all undertaken by colleagues from whom Britten might expect sympathy for, and comprehension of, his artistic aims; it also provided the capacity to meet his undeniably stringent demands. Having secured, in the shape of the English Opera Group, the ideal means of achieving his own vision of opera, Britten took a further momentous step in 1948 with the creation of the Aldeburgh Festival. This in turn secured the platform on which performances, at their best of an incomparably creative character, would be given and addressed to an audience rooted in East Anglia. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Britten's feeling for the region in which he was born or his commitment to the community—Aldeburgh—in which he lived and worked for most of his life. The founding of the festival speaks for itself. On the other hand, what had begun as a sometimes emphatically local venture rapidly developed into a unique national artistic annual event, and by the time of Britten's death it had for years commanded international attention.

The nexus represented by the group and festival was in fact the result of the interaction between Britten's activities as a creator and a performer. In both areas he was the generating force, which is not to underestimate or undervalue the massive contribution of Peter Pears and, at a later stage, of Imogen Holst, the daughter of Gustav Holst. The attention paid internationally to the festival of course derived in large measure from the constant flow of new works by Britten that were first heard there; while it was the festival which enabled Britten to introduce to Aldeburgh audiences a quite astonishing collective of international performers of the highest calibre. Janet Baker, Heather Harper, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Murray Perahia, Julian Bream, the Amadeus Quartet, and Galina Vishnevskaya were only a few, the majority of whom remained firm friends until the end of Britten's life. It was some of these artists whose gifts and personalities in turn stimulated Britten to write new works for them. Thus was the flow of creativity sustained by a kind of amalgam of all the areas in which Britten, with his chosen team of collaborators, was active. The next inevitable step—again something that he had had in mind for a long period—was to build the concert hall which, together with the Suffolk churches already conscripted, would accommodate festival performances. These were not only of his own music and that of his contemporaries, but of the great legacy of the past—Bach, Dowland, Purcell, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mahler, for example—performances which, since the composer's death, have rightly come to be assessed as one of the musical phenomena for which the twentieth-century musical scene will be remembered, such was the intense identification with whichever composer Britten was re-creating, whether he sat at the keyboard or stood on the podium. Supremely endowed as he was as a pianist, he could without any doubt have been among the world's top-class public virtuosos; but, like Melville's Bartleby, he ‘preferred not to’.

It was a feature of Britten's compositional method that he would sometimes comprehensively explore a musico-theatrical format that he had himself established in a sequence of works, as in the case of the ground-breaking trinity of chamber operas, composed between 1946 and 1948, and, later, in the composition of the three church parables in the 1960s. But even where the format imposed a certain unity of method, this did not result in any lack of diversity in the character of the individual works, each of which occupies strikingly different worlds of feeling and mise en scène. (In a different example of the genre altogether, the five Canticles, composed between 1947 and 1974, demonstrate what diversity Britten could achieve even while respecting the basic concept.)

When The Beggar's Opera (1948) was succeeded by Billy Budd (1951; revised, 1960) and Gloriana (1953), both of which operas involved very large resources, large choruses in particular, and both of which were composed for first performance at Covent Garden, it might have been concluded that the genre of chamber opera had been abandoned. In 1954, however, there followed at the festival of contemporary music in Venice the first performance of The Turn of the Screw, a work which can properly be regarded not only as the summit of Britten's chamber opera concept but as one of his greatest masterpieces for the musical theatre. It is, above all, distinguished for its unique form—a theme and variations for orchestra which enclose the sixteen scenes of the opera and culminate in a passacaglia (another form which Britten made peculiarly his own; among his principal sources were Purcell, Berg, and Shostakovich). The tightness of the form is matched by the economy of means and an unfaltering pacing of the drama. It was in the Screw too, for the first time, that there emerged explicitly and audibly Britten's growing preoccupation with the ordering and organization of all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, though there had been intimations of this in Billy Budd, some three years earlier. While Schoenberg was indubitably an influence, in the Screw this shows up principally at the horizontal (that is, the thematic) level, not the vertical (accompanimental) level. (As a youth, it should be remembered, Britten had much admired certain of Schoenberg's works and had even himself played Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, op. 19, at one of his mother's soirées—a ‘modern music’ evening—when still a schoolboy. This Lowestoft première on 30 April 1930 would surely have come as something of a surprise to Mrs Britten's guests.) Thereafter, what can be described as ‘twelve-note propositions’ recurred with increasing frequency, complexity, and weight in Britten's music to the end of his life. However, there was never any adherence to the strict serial system as conceived by Schoenberg or any systematic abandonment of tonality, which, for Britten, as he himself vowed, was absolutely fundamental and indispensable to his own creativity; he could not envisage composing without it.

Heterophony

Thus it is that the Screw must occupy a special place in any account of the evolution of Britten's musical language, one which throughout his life (and his commitment to tonality apart) was notably eclectic in character and non-ideological in spirit. What he chose as materials or means of organization, he made his own. This flexibility proved a notable resource for the operas, and in particular those which succeeded the chamber operas of the 1940s: Billy Budd, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1970), and, finally, Death in Venice (1973). The very diversity of the dramas and the changing landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes in which they are located called for music of an exceptional versatility. Britten's inventiveness and imagination rose to the challenge; his, indeed, was a language which, to the very end of his life, was in a continuous process of accumulating fresh vocabulary. On occasion these made a covert appearance in advance of their later patent materialization. Billy Budd is a case in point. Despite the fact that the work might be said to be dedicated to re-energizing the power and image of the triad—one of the basic building-blocks of music across four centuries—it also employed at a critical moment in the evolution of the drama a type of polyphony—heterophony, often the simultaneous combination of different rhythmic versions of the same melody—that played a conspicuous role in his later music, not only for the theatre but also for the concert hall; indeed, it was to constitute the distinguishing feature of Britten's final period of composition. The accrual of this specific technique marks one of the most important developments in the evolution of Britten's composing and is intimately tied in with the events of his life. It was in fact during his wartime sojourn in the United States that Britten met the Canadian-born composer, pianist, and scholar Colin McPhee (1901–1964). McPhee it was who had studied the indigenous music of Bali and its orchestra—the gamelan—and soon after they had first met in 1939 he introduced Britten to examples of Balinese ceremonial music arranged (by McPhee) for two pianos. (A historic recording of this exists, made by McPhee and Britten in New York, probably in 1941.) Although Britten seems not to have betrayed to McPhee much immediate enthusiasm for Balinese music, clearly the experience made a profound impression on him: the first audible stirrings of it are to be found in the prologue to Paul Bunyan, when the chorus observes that the moon is ‘turning blue’, and Britten had to come up with comparably distinctive and arresting music. In short, there began the incorporation of a new vocabulary, and the techniques to make it explicit, into works composed by Britten after Peter Grimes (for example, the ‘Sunday Morning’ interlude, or the explosion of heterophony in Billy Budd (Vere's C minor aria in act II)). But, fascinatingly, it was not until 1957, and the first performance by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden of the full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (Pagodaland, as the ballet has it, was, of course, Bali), with choreography by John Cranko, that public and critical attention was drawn to the oriental dimension that forms so prominent a part of the score, the longest orchestral score in fact Britten was ever to compose. Part of it was a large independent percussion orchestra—Britten's version of the gamelan—in which audiences were regaled with brilliant transcriptions for Western instruments of music that Britten himself had heard on his momentous visit to Bali (he was on a world tour with Peter Pears) in 1956: ‘about as complicated as Schönberg’ (Cooke, Britten and the Far East, 70), he wrote when assessing its technique in a letter to Imogen Holst from the island.

When this extraordinary work was first heard, its overt links with and references to the Orient were regarded as a probable one-off day trip to a highly decorative, exotic world of sound. But this assumption was confounded when, eight years later, Britten composed and brought to first performance (in 1964, again with the English Opera Group, again at the Aldeburgh Festival) the first of his three parables for church performance, Curlew River, even though, in retrospect, significant foreshadowings and parallels may be found in Noye's Fludde and even earlier in St Nicolas, the quasi-dramatic church cantata of 1948. But what was peculiar to Curlew River was its Japanese roots. A visit to Japan had immediately followed the visit to Bali (on this same round-the-world excursion Britten and Pears had also been in Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and had then continued their tour in Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Thailand, India, and Ceylon), and it was in Tokyo, in February 1956, that Britten attended a performance of the ancient and famous Noh play Sumidagawa (‘The Sumida River’). Britten was overwhelmed by the drama, the ritualistic, idealized action, and the music, a form of recitation accompanied by a very small instrumental on-stage ensemble. Although Britten himself declared, typically, that it was never his intention to attempt an authentic replica in any sense of Noh, a well-known Japanese composer declared that he was astonished at Britten's absorption in so short a time of so much identifiable detail taken from Japanese sources; and it was not only Noh drama that was at the heart of Curlew River but also Britten's encounter with Gagaku, the ancient traditional court music of Japan. It is true, of course, that Britten relocated his version of Noh in the medieval English mystery play (compare Noye's Fludde), but what should be borne in mind is that Noh itself might be meaningfully compared with the liturgical drama of the middle ages; both genres run in chronological parallel. What, however, is of central importance to comprehend with regard to Curlew River and its successors, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), is the acquisition and deployment of new techniques—heterophony, above all—culled from Britten's encounters with musics from non-Western cultures, an example of the process of absorption and accumulation by which he constantly renewed his musical language.

This radical new path makes it possible to present Britten as the most important twentieth-century Western composer substantially to incorporate non-Western techniques into his own compositional practice, and it can be traced back to the early 1940s and the accident of his meeting with McPhee in Amityville, New York. It could be argued indeed that there is sufficient evidence in works preceding the encounter with McPhee to make it logical—predictable even—that the techniques he absorbed on Bali and in Japan should have made so powerful a creative appeal. In other words, there was an established predisposition to succumb to what he heard. Thus it was that the new techniques and new sonorities he brought home with him as part of his creative baggage continued to play an often dominant role in much of Britten's final music, in works as contrasted as Death in Venice, where Bali and the gamelan surface prominently to characterize the Tadzio of Thomas Mann's imagination and the athletics of the children on the beach, and the late song cycle The Poet's Echo (1965), settings of Pushkin (in the original Russian) composed for Galina Vishnevskaya and Mstislav Rostropovich. The song cycle belongs unequivocally to the wholly European tradition of song cycles for voice and piano established by Britten's great predecessors and memorably sustained by him from his first cycle, the Michelangelo sonnets of 1940, until his last, Who are these Children?, of 1969. Analysis, however, reveals that the Pushkin settings, though they may wear a European face, are serviced technically by heterophony, the principal form of polyphony in south-east Asia and the Orient.

This unique interaction between East and West, which secures for Britten a quite singular place in the history of twentieth-century music, is perhaps best exemplified in his penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave (1970), where Owen's climactic apostrophe to peace is delivered over the rotation of twelve triads spanning the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale in simultaneous combination with an independent percussion ensemble, the heterophonic texture of which provides a horizontal, gamelan-like complement to the vertical conflation of the triads. Thus, to articulate the universal need for and importance of peace, Britten unites sonorous images and techniques drawn from cultures of East and West without detriment to their distinctiveness. There is no other moment quite like this in European music of the past century.

Orchestral and other works

It is easy, because of the scope, stature, and sheer volume of the operas, and the wealth of vocal music of all kinds, to pay insufficient attention to the many works Britten wrote in other, specifically non-vocal genres. Even in his schooldays and early youth Britten had composed no fewer than six string quartets, one of which (in D) he was to revive and revise in 1974. These were the predecessors of the three masterly string quartets, the first composed in 1941 in the United States; the second in 1945, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death; the third in 1975, at the very end of his life. Fascinatingly, this late-style work ends with a passacaglia which incorporates materials from Death in Venice. The quartet's finale was itself written in Venice. Britten heard a run-through of the piece by the Amadeus Quartet in the library of the Red House in Aldeburgh on 28 September 1976, but he died before the première at the Snape Maltings on 19 December.

Many of the orchestral works have established themselves in the concert repertory both at home and overseas, among them the early Simple Symphony (1934, and less simple than its title would suggest); the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra (1937); and the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), subtitled ‘Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell’. Britten had composed his piano concerto—his only work in this genre—in 1938; in August that year he appeared as soloist in its première at a Promenade Concert under Henry Wood. In 1939 there followed the violin concerto, again to remain a solitary example of its kind, which received its first performance in New York in 1940; and it was there, in 1941, that the Sinfonia da requiem was first performed, having been completed in the preceding year. These three major orchestral works form a virtual trinity united in their response, albeit diverse in degree and musical character, to the political anxieties of the time which had already erupted with such extraordinary vehemence in the orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936). What is encountered here is a teasing but highly significant creative paradox: that while public recognition of Britten's works involving orchestra was established only well after the première of Peter Grimes, it was in those very works that the orchestral mastery which was to win the enthusiasm of the opera's first audiences had been prepared and demonstrated. Ironically enough, the consequence of Britten's developing relationship with the orchestra was the creation of a four-movement suite from the opera—the Four Sea Interludes—that soon became the best known of Britten's orchestral music, which says something about the symphonic scale of his thinking in the opera. (In later years his orchestral works were to enjoy an independence that is entirely their own right.)

Although Britten never made use of ‘symphony’ as a title without qualifying or descriptive additions, two large-scale works, the Spring Symphony, for solo voices, chorus, boy's choir, and orchestra (1949), and the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1964), belong to a symphonic tradition created largely by Mahler, by whom Britten was much influenced; he was among that composer's earliest admirers in England, in the mid-1930s. The Spring Symphony, for instance, incorporates vocal forms and the matching resources to realize them—including cantata, orchestral song, and a choral finale—that, until the advent of Mahler (with the profoundly influential exception of Beethoven), had been excluded from the concept of symphony proper. The Symphony for Cello and Orchestra on the other hand, composed in 1963 and inspired by the peculiar genius of Mstislav Rostropovich, must rank among the most important of Britten's purely instrumental works. It shows a mastery of the narrative form Mahler had bequeathed to composers of symphonies in the twentieth century, proceeding as it does from darkness to light in a sequence of movements which, while never failing to exploit the virtuosity of the soloist, demonstrably make up a symphony, not a concerto. The soloist is the vehicle by means of which the symphonic drama is enacted. The proof the Cello Symphony offers of Britten's ability to think and create in purely instrumental terms on so exceptional a scale gives cause for much regret that he did not more often turn to the genre of the symphony. This same work was also undoubtedly indebted to that other inheritor of Mahler's potent legacy, Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975). An extraordinarily close friendship grew up between Shostakovich and Britten, particularly towards the end of their lives. The immense admiration each felt for the other is amply documented, not least in Britten's dedication to Shostakovich of the third of his church parables, The Prodigal Son (1968), and Shostakovich's dedication to Britten of his symphony no. 14, the first performance of which outside of Russia was entrusted by the composer to his British friend and colleague at the Aldeburgh Festival of 1970. It is in this symphony that Shostakovich memorably avows his bond with Britten in his setting of Küchelbecker's ‘O Delvig, Delvig!’, a text which celebrates the freedom an artist should enjoy as of right and reminds us that ‘inspired deeds and sweet song are alike immortal!’.

An earlier and very important friendship was with Michael Tippett (1905–1998), with whom Britten was particularly close after his return from the United States to England at war, where Tippett too was a notably steadfast pacifist. There was much mutual admiration and shared musical ideals, activities, and ambitions at this time, when the pairing of Britten and Tippett was often used to identify the cutting edge of a perceived renaissance in English music. Other prominent composer friends included Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989) and William Walton (1902–1982), though the latter seemed to find it difficult to accept (or enjoy) the success of his younger colleague.

From 1947 Britten lived in the small coastal town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, first in a house facing the sea on Crag Path, then in the Red House, on Golf Lane, where he died in 1976. In February 1970, however, as a consequence of the ever-increasing pressures on the Red House—which had become the headquarters of Britten's public and private lives—he and Pears, after a long search, purchased a ‘retreat’, an old farmhouse in a markedly remote location in rural Suffolk, to which they made two important additions, a big music room conceived by the same architect, Peter Collymore, who had designed the library adjoining the Red House, completed in 1980, and perhaps even more importantly a studio, located in the farthest corner of the land, modelled, it must have been, on the ‘composing house’ that was a vital adjunct to Mahler's creativity. This Horham studio secured the calm and isolation essential to Britten's composing, which the constant busyness of the Red House put at risk; and it was here that much of Britten's late music was composed, including his last opera, Death in Venice, the première of which he heard, at least in part, on the radio at Horham, where he was convalescing after his heart surgery in 1972. There had been no intention of altogether parting company with the Red House but undoubtedly in the longer term he and Pears had thought of Horham, with its spectacular land- and cloudscapes, and a tiny open air swimming pool, as a possible ultimate home. In the event, while both men enjoyed some happy and fruitful times there, the collapse in Britten's health put paid to their occasional residence. It was from Horham, indeed, that Britten made his last journey to the Red House before his death. Britten was held in public, indeed national, esteem throughout the final decades of his life, and his music never lost its grip on both public attention and affection. In the sixties and seventies, however, there was a discernible cooling off in responses to his music, especially among the younger generations of composers, many of whom had previously adopted him as a role model. Britten was undoubtedly aware of and pained by this adverse swing in opinion; but the fashion to dismiss him, not only at home but also abroad, was not of long duration. Since his death there has been global recognition of his status as one of the most important composers of the century. A quite different kind of negative response—the only one of its kind during the years of Britten's creative maturity—was generated by the première of Gloriana, the opera he wrote to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II and first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 8 June 1953. The royal gala that launched the opera proved to be a difficult, sceptical occasion, with an audience made up largely of diplomats, courtiers, and politicians whose first interest was not music. This might have been foreseen. What was not was the seizing of the opportunity to give the composer a robust dressing-down: many voices were raised to suggest that Britten had overreached himself, had pushed his luck too far, and somehow not composed a work worthy of the event it purported to honour; by some indeed it was considered an affront to the monarch. The fracas that ensued deserves (brief) attention for the reason that it was perhaps the only occasion in Britten's later life when there bubbled to the surface clear intimations of resentment and envy of his success that had long been around but had hitherto lacked a point of ignition. Undoubtedly too the row was fuelled, albeit more covertly, by other long-standing sources of hostility: his pacifist convictions and, above all, his homosexuality. The strong vein of homophobia in British culture, particularly in the post-war years, can never be disregarded when tracing the trajectory of Britten's life. It would be absurd to pretend that the life and the art were otherwise than complex. But psychobiography and the most extreme of gender studies apart, there is one conjunction of Britten's life and art that can be simply stated: his life was his music; he had no other, and it is a serious error of judgement to read the art as if it were somehow an autobiographical account of the life.

Almost the only interruptions that Britten permitted to his compositional activity were those generated by his partnering of Peter Pears, both at home and overseas, and the demands made by the Aldeburgh Festival and the English Opera Group, especially when, as was often the case, one of his own operas—a new one, or an important revival—was involved. There were occasional bouts of ill health, but in general he had the energy and physical stamina to fulfil his creative programme; as is well known, he was a keen and formidably accomplished tennis player; he swam, he ate and drank moderately, and he did not smoke. Long walks, which accompanied the exercise of his creative imagination, were part of his daily routine. There were, to be sure, what might be described as psychosomatic illnesses; it cannot have been entirely accidental that these set-backs seemed specifically to affect his ability physically to use pencil and manuscript paper. But these blocks, though real enough—and painful—were rare (the works in question, some of them among the most important he was to write, eventually got done), and it was not until the very last years of his life that he succumbed to a serious illness of the heart that had its origins in early childhood. But even this crisis in his health, for so it proved to be, did not stop—dam—his determination to compose. Against the advice of his doctors he refused to undergo the necessary surgery until he had put the finishing touches to Death in Venice. After open-heart surgery, which was only partially successful, and during which he suffered a minor stroke—one of the major consequences of which was that he was no longer able to play the piano (his right arm and hand were affected)—he continued to compose. Among the works created against the odds in this final phase were the Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A Time there was …’ (his last orchestral work), the dramatic cantata Phaedra (for Janet Baker), and, for the Amadeus String Quartet, the third quartet—works which showed no diminution in the power of his creativity, though all were touched, inevitably, by his consciousness of impending mortality.

Significance

For all his fame and worldwide recognition, Britten remained a truly modest man. Though it may seem strange to those who were not close to him, and were yet fully aware of the prodigious gifts with which he was endowed, he felt inwardly insecure and uncertain that he was as good a composer as so many told him he was. As Peter Pears once observed, Britten would never have ranked himself alongside his great classical predecessors: it was just that he knew he was better at what he did than most of his contemporaries, perhaps especially those at home. Since his death the world seems to have taken a more positive view than the composer's own. There followed a significant increase in the number of performances of his works instead of the customary decline. But his self-assessment was typical of the unsparing standards by which he judged himself, and which often he seems not to have noticed that he had achieved or exceeded. In this sense, his insecurity may be said to have contributed to his eventual mastery. He was always wanting to do better still. As he remarked in an interview in 1964, ‘I haven't yet reached the simplicity I should like in my music, and I am enormously aware that I haven't yet come up to the technical standards Bridge set me.’

Generous in spirit (though frugal in his habits), kind, courteous, compassionate, genial in his everyday dealings with the everyday world—all these qualities might with truth serve any attempt at describing his personality. He was, it is true, conspicuously reserved in public manner, but when travelling at home or abroad with close friends or taking part in quasi-family outings—picnicking was a much favoured and much enjoyed pursuit—he could be very good company: warm, observant, amused, and amusing, his habitually attendant anxieties in temporary suspense. Watching cricket with Pears, sometimes with binoculars, was another relaxation, especially when the two men were on tour and a convenient window overlooking the ground afforded them the opportunity. Perhaps it was only in later years, when he seemed to become ever more conscious of the world's pain and ills, that liberating laughter was less often heard from him. On the other hand, manifestations of ironic comedy made a powerful appeal, hence no doubt his own (serious!) comedy in music, Albert Herring, and his long-standing enthusiasm for the classic Marx Brothers films. But, as was inevitable, given the complexities of his creative character and his multiple activities and responsibilities, relationships were sometimes less tranquil with those associates who found themselves working alongside him, especially in the field of management and administration. Here, in particular, there was often a legacy of unhappiness and ruptured friendship. Needless hurt was sometimes inflicted, and there was much talk during Britten's lifetime and after his death of betrayal, disloyalty, deceit, and the ditching of old colleagues. This may, in retrospect, seem somewhat exaggerated and unrealistic. The world of the arts has ever been high-voltage territory, and it is scarcely surprising that the history of Aldeburgh, its festival, and the English Opera Group should vouchsafe its fair share of rows and ructions. At the height of crises of this kind, mention was often made of ‘sacrifices’. Britten was undeniably ruthless when it came to professional standards or the achieving of a creative vision or ambition, when he would absolutely not be thwarted. But what has to be remembered in this context is Britten's sacrifice of himself to the often killing demands his own creativity made of him.

Britten was awarded many prizes, awards, and distinctions. He kept his decorations, so he claimed, in a drawer nearby his socks and handkerchiefs. He was created Companion of Honour in 1953; was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1965; and was created Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the county of Suffolk in 1976, the first time a life peerage had been bestowed on a British composer. His acceptance of this honour puzzled some of his closest friends, to one of whom he remarked, ‘Will you ever speak to me again?’ Influential here, without doubt, was his growing sense of physical isolation at Aldeburgh, a consequence of his increasing ill health, and a sense too of no longer being at the centre of British musical life which he had dominated for more than thirty years. He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge (1959), Oxford (1963), and nine other British universities, and was an honorary fellow or member of many colleges and institutions. Among his many prizes and awards were the Coolidge medal (1941), the Hanseatic Goethe prize (1961), the first Aspen award (1964), the Wihuri-Sibelius prize (1965), the Ravel prize (1974), and the Mozart medal (1976). His executors were approached with a request for his burial in Westminster Abbey, but he had declared a preference for Aldeburgh parish church; the abbey, however, was home to a thanksgiving service which took place on 10 March 1977, attended by an overflowing congregation. (A memorial stone was laid in the north choir aisle of the abbey in 1978.) Britten was unsentimental about death, a convinced humanist rather than a believer. On 4 December 1976 he died without fear in his bedroom at the Red House, his home, with his nurse, Rita Thomson, by him, and in the arms of his lifelong companion, Peter Pears. The burial took place on 7 December. Both men now lie side by side in the graveyard of the parish church, within sight and sound of the sea.

Donald Mitchell

Sources  

B. Britten, My brother Benjamin (1987) · P. Brett, ‘Britten, (Edward) Benjamin’, New Grove, 2nd edn · Letters from a life: selected letters and diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1923–1945, ed. D. Mitchell and P. Reed, rev. edn, 2 vols. (1998) · D. Mitchell and J. Evans, eds., Pictures from a life, 1913–1976 (1978) · D. Mitchell, Britten and Auden in the thirties: the year 1936 (1981); new edn (2000) · P. Evans, The music of Benjamin Britten (1979); rev. edn (1996) · C. Palmer, ed., The Britten companion (1984) · M. Cooke, ed., The Cambridge companion to Benjamin Britten (1999) · M. Cooke, ed., Britten and the Far East (1998) · H. Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: a biography (1992) · D. Mitchell and H. Keller, Benjamin Britten: a commentary on his works from a group of specialists (1952) · E. W. White, Benjamin Britten: his life and operas, 2nd edn (1983) · P. Banks, ed., Benjamin Britten: a catalogue of the published works (1999) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1977) · M. Crawford, Parcel arrived safely: tied with string: my autobiography (1999) · K. Mitchell, ‘Edinburgh diary 1968’, On Mahler and Britten, ed. P. Reed (1995) · D. Matthews, Britten (2003)

Archives  

Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh, music MSS, diaries, letters, concert programmes, press cuttings, posters, photographs · Merton Oxf., letters · U. Southampton L., MSS |  Bodl. Oxf., letters to Boosey and Hawkes · NPG, Britten–Pears photographic collection · Tate collection, corresp. with Lord Clark · W. Sussex RO, letters to Walter Hussey  

FILM

 

BBC WAC · BFINA, ‘Benjamin Britten the hidden heart’, Channel 4, 29 July 2001 · BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, home footage · BFINA, performance footage · BFINA, South Bank show, LWT, 6 April 1980 · Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, ‘Aspects of Britten’ (parts 3 and 4), 1995, H5379/2, H5379/3 · BL NSA, ‘Benjamin Britten: the early years’ (Parts 1 to 3), BBC Radio 3, April 1980, T2986 BWC1, T2997 BW, T3017 BWC1 · BL NSA, ‘Britten and Pears in the USA’, BBC Radio 3, 3 Dec 1996, H8224/1 · BL NSA, ‘Britten's apprenticeship’, (parts 1 to 4), 1995, H6157/4, H6181/3, H6235/2, H6231/1 · BL NSA, ‘Britten's radio music’, (Parts 1 and 3), 1995, H6231/1, H6272/1 · BL NSA, ‘Company of heaven’, B4377/02 · BL NSA, current affairs recording · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, ‘Interview’, 25 May 1956, T9346 BW/W08/W08 S2 C5 · BL NSA, ‘Interview’, 30 May 1957, T9340 BW W04/W04 S2 C1 · BL NSA, Mining the archive, BBC Radio 3, 29 Nov 1996, H8092/2 · BL NSA, ‘My dear Grace…’, 1995, H6366/3 · BL NSA, oral history interview · BL NSA, performance recordings · BL NSA, ‘Performing Britten’ (parts 1 to 3), Nov 1999, 1CDR0000921BD1, 1CDR0000924BD1, 1CDR0000931BD1 · BL NSA, ‘Battle of Britten: young Apollo’, B977/2 · BL NSA, ‘Reminiscences of Britten’, 1994, H4475/2 · BL NSA, ‘The six ages of Britten’, 1973, T679W BD1 · BL NSA, ‘Turning point’, BBC Radio 3, 3 March 1997 · BL NSA, Vintage years, H1267/02 · Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh


Likenesses  

K. Green, double portrait, oils, 1943 (with Peter Pears), NPG; repro. in Mitchell and Evans, eds., Pictures from a life, pl. 231 · K. Green, oils, 1943, Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh; repro. in P. Banks, ed., The making of ‘Peter Grimes’ (1996) · H. Lamb, oils, 1945, Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh; repro. in Mitchell and Evans, eds., Pictures from a life, pl. 234 · M. Austria, group portrait, photograph, 1948, NPG; see illus. in Crozier, Eric John (1914–1994) · G. Ehrlich, plaster cast for bronze head, 1951, NPG · Y. Karsh, two bromide prints, 1954, NPG · M. Potter, oils, 1959, repro. in Mitchell and Evans, eds., Pictures from a life · oils, 1975, Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh · C. Beaton, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, Britten–Pears Library, Aldeburgh · photographs, NPG · photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£1,664,714: probate, 5 Sept 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales