Spirit of England - Benjamin Britten - a deeply flawed 'genius'

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
a deeply flawed 'genius'

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM, CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor and pianist.
He is considered by some (a reducing number as the years pass) to be central figure of 20th-century British classical music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces.
His best-known works include the opera 'Peter Grimes' (1945), the 'War Requiem' (1962) and the orchestral show-piece 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra' (1945).

Born in Suffolk, the son of a dentist, Britten showed talent from an early age.
Benjamin Britten exhibited all the traits associated with a child prodigy.
He had his first piano lessons aged four and began writing music aged five, nurtured by his mother’s amateur talent.
Such was young Britten’s musical precocity that he was soon acquiring and studying orchestral scores of major works of classical music.
His viola teacher, Audrey Alston who played in the Norwich Quartet, obtained tickets for him to hear the Ravel String Quartet in Norwich as well as the Beethoven E Minor (opus 59 no. 2) which the ten-year old school-boy described as ‘absolutely ripping’.
More importantly, Audrey Alston also chaperoned the budding composer to a concert in October 1924, at the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, to hear Frank Bridge conducting his magnificent orchestral suite 'The Sea' (1911).

Frank Bridge (26 February 1879 – 10 January 1941) was an English composer and violist.
Among Bridge's works are the orchestral suite 'The Sea' (1910–11), 'Oration' (1930) for cello and orchestra (recorded in 1976 by Julian Lloyd Webber) and the opera 'The Christmas Rose' (premiered 1932). Many of his greatest works are in a late-Romantic idiom. His works also show harmonic influences by Maurice Ravel, and especially the great Russian composer, Alexander Scriabin. 

Britten, aged ten, latter described himself as being ‘knocked sideways’ upon hearing the music of his future teacher and mentor.
Audrey Alston subsequently introduced her pupil to Frank Bridge (1879-1941), and the young composer later took lessons from him.
Britten's first published work, 'Sinfonietta' (1932) is dedicated to his mentor, 'Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge' (1937) written for string orchestra and the 'Four Sea Interludes', which intersperse the action of the opera 'Peter Grime's (1945) are compositions which pay homage to his influential music-teacher. 
Britten studied at the Royal College of Music in London and privately with the composer Frank Bridge.
Britten’s work developed in 1930 with his 'A Hymn to the Virgin', a choral work composed when convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s Public School in North Norfolk.
During his boarding at Gresham's there must also have been occasions when the young school-boy passed through Norwich when returning home to Lowestoft during the school holidays, or visited the city to purchase one of the many 78 r.p.m. shellac discs, or orchestral scores which he avidly collected throughout his life.
'A Hymn to the Virgin' was first performed in January 1931 at the church of Saint John's, Lowestoft.
Many years later, Britten wrote 'Hymn to Saint Peter' (op.55) for the quincentenary anniversary of the church of Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich.  C.J.R.Coleman, who had been organist at St. John’s Lowestoft in the 1930's, was by 1955, organist at Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich. Coleman and his son, with young Benjamin and his father, had made music together during Britten's childhood.
Britten held a deep attachment to memories of his youth, and the composition for St.Peter's was, like several others, written in gratitude for early encouragement from his mentors.
With the opportunity to enlist at the Royal School of Music in 1931, Britten’s knowledge of music, through study and attendance at concerts in London developed considerably.
Upon completion of his studies at the R.C.M. he was however dissuaded from travelling to Vienna in order to study composition further under the tuition of Alan Berg, however, sometime in 1932 Britten met another composer he also (somewhat unwisely) admired, Arnold Schönberg.

Arnold Schönberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951) was an Austrian composer and painter, associated with the expressionist movement in German poetry and art, and leader of the Second Viennese School.
During the Third Reich, in the Ostmark, Schönberg's works were labelled as degenerate music.
Schönberg's music has been described as "the self-gratification of an individual who sits in his studio and invents rules according to which he then writes down his notes."

Britten returned to Norwich to conduct the first performance of his 'Simple Symphony' for string orchestra in 1934.
Recycling and re-arranging various juvenile compositions, nearly all of which were written between the young age of nine to twelve, 'Simple Symphony' indulges in youthful humour, heavily hinted in each movement's titles- Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Serenade and Frolicsome Finale.
It was dedicated to his viola teacher, Audrey Alston.
Britten's first fully professional engagement however was in 1936 at the Norwich Festival, where he conducted the première of his song-cycle for soloist and orchestra 'Our Hunting Fathers'.
It features a dominant theme in Britten's music, mankind's inhumanity.
In the first of Britten's many song-cycles, it is cruelty towards animals and the barbaric blood sport of hunting, as its title suggests, which is strongly condemned.
The libretto of 'Our Hunting Fathers' was supplied by the poet W. H. Auden.
Britten first came to public attention with the 'a cappella' choral work 'A Boy Was Born' in 1934.
With the première of 'Peter Grimes' in 1945, he leapt to international fame.
Over the next 28 years, he wrote 14 more operas, establishing himself as one of the leading 20th-century composers in the genre.
In addition to large-scale operas for Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden, he wrote "chamber operas" for small forces, suitable for performance in venues of modest size.
Among the best known of these is 'The Turn of the Screw' (1954).
Recurring themes in the operas are the struggle of an outsider against a hostile society, and the corruption of innocence.
Britten's other works range from orchestral to choral, solo vocal, chamber and instrumental as well as film music.
He took a great interest in writing music for children and amateur performers, including the opera 'Noye's Fludde', a 'Missa Brevis', and the song collection 'Friday Afternoons'.
He often composed with particular performers in mind.
His most frequent and important muse was his personal and professional partner, the tenor Peter Pears; others included Janet Baker, Dennis Brain, Julian Bream, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Britten was a celebrated pianist and conductor, performing many of his own works in concert and on record. 
He also performed and recorded works by others, such as Bach's Brandenburg concertos, Mozart symphonies, and song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.
Together with Pears and the librettist and producer Eric Crozier, Britten founded the annual Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and he was responsible for the creation of Snape Maltings concert hall in 1967.
In his last year, he was the first composer to be given a life peerage.

Early Years

Lowestoft in the early 20th century
Britten was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, on the east coast of England.
He was the youngest of the four children of Robert Victor Britten (1878–1934) and his wife Edith Rhoda, née Hockley (1874–1937).
Robert Britten's youthful ambition to become a farmer had been thwarted by lack of capital, and he had instead trained as a dentist, a profession he practised successfully but without pleasure.
While studying at Charing Cross Hospital in London he met Edith Hockley, the daughter of a junior Home Office official.
They were married in September 1901 at St John's, Smith Square, London.
The consensus among biographers of Britten is that his father was a loving but somewhat stern and remote parent.
Britten, according to his sister Beth, "got on well with him and shared his wry sense of humour, dedication to work and capacity for taking pains".
Edith Britten was a talented amateur musician and secretary of the Lowestoft Musical Society.
In the English provinces of the early 20th century, distinctions of social class were taken very seriously. Britten described his family as "very ordinary middle class", but there were aspects of the Brittens that were not ordinary: Edith's father was illegitimate, and her mother was an alcoholic; Robert Britten was an agnostic and refused to attend church on Sundays.
Music was the principal means by which Edith Britten strove to maintain the family's social standing, inviting the pillars of the local community to musical soirées at the house.
When Britten was three months old he contracted pneumonia and nearly died.
The illness left him with a damaged heart, and doctors warned his parents that he would probably never be able to lead a normal life.
He recovered more fully than expected, and as a boy was a keen tennis player and cricketer.
To Edith Britten's great delight he was an outstandingly musical child, unlike his sisters, who inherited their father's indifference to music, or his brother, who was musically talented but interested only in ragtime.
Edith gave the young Britten his first lessons in piano and notation. He made his first attempts at composition when he was five.
He started piano lessons when he was seven years old, and three years later began to play the viola.
He was one of the last composers brought up on exclusively live music: his father refused to have a gramophone or, later, a radio in the house.


When he was seven Britten was sent to a dame school, run by the Misses Astle.
The younger sister, Ethel, gave him piano lessons; in later life he said that he remained grateful for the excellence of her teaching.
The following year he moved on to his prep school, South Lodge, Lowestoft, as a day boy.
The headmaster, Thomas Sewell, was an old-fashioned disciplinarian; the young Britten was outraged at the severe corporal punishments frequently handed out, and later he said that his lifelong pacifism probably had its roots in his reaction to the regime at the school.
He himself rarely fell foul of Sewell, a mathematician, in which subject Britten was a star pupil.
The school had no musical tradition, and Britten continued to study the piano with Ethel Astle.
From the age of ten he took viola lessons from a friend of Edith Britten's, Audrey Alston, who had been a professional player before her marriage.
In his spare time he composed prolifically.
When his 'Simple Symphony', based on these juvenilia, was recorded in 1956, Britten wrote this pen-portrait of his young self for the sleeve note:

'Once upon a time there was a prep-school boy. ... He was quite an ordinary little boy ... he loved cricket, only quite liked football (although he kicked a pretty "corner"); he adored mathematics, got on all right with history, was scared by Latin Unseen; he behaved fairly well, only ragged the recognised amount, so that his contacts with the cane or the slipper were happily rare (although one nocturnal expedition to stalk ghosts left its marks behind); he worked his way up the school slowly and steadily, until at the age of thirteen he reached that pinnacle of importance and grandeur never to be quite equalled in later days: the head of the Sixth, head-prefect, and Victor Ludorum. But – there was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music. His friends bore with it, his enemies kicked a bit but not for long (he was quite tough), the staff couldn't object if his work and games didn't suffer. He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it.'

Audrey Alston encouraged Britten to go to symphony concerts in Norwich. At one of these, during the triennial Norfolk and Norwich Festival on 30 October 1924, he heard Frank Bridge's orchestral poem 'The Sea', conducted by the composer.
It was the first significant piece of modern music he had ever encountered, and he was, in his own phrase, "knocked sideways".
Audrey Alston was a friend of Bridge; when he returned to Norwich for the next festival in 1927 she brought her 13-year-old pupil to meet him.
Bridge was impressed with the boy, and after they had gone through some of Britten's compositions together he invited him to come to London to take lessons from him.
Robert Britten, supported by Thomas Sewell, doubted the wisdom of pursuing a composing career; a compromise was agreed by which Britten would, as planned, go on to his public school the following year but would make regular day-trips to London to study composition with Bridge and piano with his colleague Harold Samuel.
Bridge impressed on Britten the importance of scrupulous attention to the technical craft of composing and the maxim that "you should find yourself and be true to what you found."
The earliest substantial works Britten composed while studying with Bridge are the String Quartet in F, completed in April 1928, and the Quatre Chansons Françaises, a song-cycle for high voice and orchestra. Authorities differ on the extent of Bridge's influence on his pupil's technique.
Humphrey Carpenter and Michael Oliver judge that Britten's abilities as an orchestrator were essentially self-taught; Donald Mitchell considers that Bridge had an important influence on the cycle.

Public school and Royal College of Music

In September 1928 Britten went as a boarder to Gresham's School, in Holt, Norfolk.
He did not enjoy his time there.
He hated being separated from his family, most particularly from his mother; he despised the music master; and he was shocked at the prevalence of bullying, though he was not the target of it.
He remained there for two years and in 1930, he won a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London; his examiners were the composers John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the college's harmony and counterpoint teacher, S P Waddington.
Britten was at the RCM from 1930 to 1933, studying composition with Ireland and piano with Arthur Benjamin.
He won the Sullivan Prize for composition, the Cobbett Prize for chamber music, and was twice winner of the Ernest Farrar Prize for composition.
These honours notwithstanding, he was not greatly impressed by the establishment: he found his fellow-students "amateurish and folksy" and the staff "inclined to suspect technical brilliance of being superficial and insincere".
Another Ireland pupil, the composer Humphrey Searle, said that Ireland could be "an inspiring teacher to those on his own wavelength"; Britten was not, and learned little from him.
He continued to study privately with Bridge, although he later praised Ireland for "nursing me very gently through a very, very difficult musical adolescence".
Britten also used his time in London to attend concerts and become better acquainted with the music of Stravinsky, Shostakovich and, most particularly, Mahler.
He intended postgraduate study in Vienna with Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg's student, but was eventually dissuaded by his parents, on the advice of the RCM staff.
The first of Britten's compositions to attract wide attention were composed while at the RCM: the Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932), and a set of choral variations 'A Boy was Born', written in 1933 for the BBC Singers, who first performed it the following year.
In this same period he wrote 'Friday Afternoons', a collection of 12 songs for the pupils of Clive House School, Prestatyn, where his brother was headmaster.

Early Professional Life

In February 1935, at Bridge's instigation, Britten was invited to a job interview by the BBC's director of music Adrian Boult and his assistant Edward Clark.
Britten was not enthusiastic about the prospect of working full-time in the BBC music department and was relieved when what came out of the interview was an invitation to write the score for a documentary film, 'The King's Stamp', directed by Alberto Cavalcanti for the GPO Film Unit.
Britten became a member of the film unit's small group of regular contributors, another of whom was W H Auden.
Together they worked on the documentary films Coal Face and Night Mail in 1935.
They also collaborated on the song cycle 'Our Hunting Fathers' (1936), radical both in politics and musical treatment, and subsequently other works including 'Cabaret Songs', 'On This Island', 'Paul Bunyan' and 'Hymn to St. Cecilia'.
Auden was a considerable influence on Britten, encouraging him to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons, and also to come to terms with his homosexuality.
Auden was, as David Matthews puts it, "cheerfully and guiltlessly promiscuous"; Britten, puritanical and conventional by nature, was sexually repressed.
Britten composed prolifically in this period. In the three years from 1935 to 1937 he wrote nearly 40 scores for the theatre, cinema and radio.
Among the film music of the late 1930s Matthews singles out 'Night Mail' and 'Love from a Stranger' (1937); among the theatre music he selects for mention, 'The Ascent of F6' (1936), 'On the Frontier' (1938) and 'Johnson Over Jordan' (1939); and of the music for radio, 'King Arthur' (1937) and 'The Sword in the Stone' (1939).
In 1937 there were two events of huge importance in Britten's life: his mother died, and he met the tenor Peter Pears.
Although Britten was extraordinarily devoted to his mother and was devastated at her death, it also seems to have been something of a liberation for him.
Only after that did he begin to engage in emotional relationships with people his own age or younger.
Later in the year he got to know Pears while they were both helping to clear out the country cottage of a mutual friend who had died in an air crash.
Pears quickly became Britten's musical inspiration and close (though for the moment platonic) friend. Britten's first work for him was composed within weeks of their meeting, a setting of Emily Brontë's poem, "A thousand gleaming fires", for tenor and strings.
During 1937 Britten composed a 'Pacifist March' to words by Ronald Duncan for the Peace Pledge Union, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member; the work was not a success and was soon withdrawn.
The best known of his compositions from this period is probably 'Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge' for string orchestra, described by Matthews as the first of Britten's works to become a popular classic.
It was a success in North America, with performances in Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, under conductors including John Barbirolli and Serge Koussevitzky.

America 1939–42

In April 1939 Britten and Pears sailed to North America, going first to Canada and then to New York.
They had several reasons for leaving England, including the difficult position of pacifists in an increasingly bellicose Europe; the success that Frank Bridge had enjoyed in the US; the departure of Auden and his friend Christopher Isherwood to the US from England three months previously; hostile or belittling reviews of Britten's music in the English press; and under-rehearsed and inadequate performances.
Britten and Pears consummated their relationship, and from then until Britten's death they were partners in both their professional and personal lives.
When the Second World War began, Britten and Pears turned for advice to the British embassy in Washington and were told that they should remain in the US as artistic ambassadors.
Pears was inclined to disregard the advice and go back to England; Britten also felt the urge to return, but accepted the embassy's counsel and persuaded Pears to do the same.
Already a friend of the composer Aaron Copland, Britten encountered his latest works 'Billy the Kid' and 'An Outdoor Overture', both of which influenced his own music.
In 1940 Britten composed 'Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo', the first of many song cycles for Pears.
Britten's orchestral works from this period include the 'Violin Concerto' and 'Sinfonia da Requiem'.
In 1941 Britten produced his first music drama, 'Paul Bunyan', an operetta, to a libretto by Auden.
While in the US, Britten had his first encounter with Balinese gamelan music, through transcriptions for piano duo made by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee.
The two met in the summer of 1939 and subsequently performed a number of McPhee's transcriptions for a recording.
This musical encounter bore fruit in several Balinese-inspired works later in Britten's career.
Moving to the US did not relieve Britten of the nuisance of hostile criticism: although Olin Downes, the doyen of New York music critics, and Irving Kolodin took to Britten's music, Virgil Thomson was, as the music scholar Suzanne Robinson puts it, consistently "severe and spiteful".
Thomson described 'Les Illumination's (1940) as "little more than a series of bromidic and facile 'effects' ... pretentious, banal and utterly disappointing", and was equally unflattering about Pears's voice. 
Robinson surmises that Thomson was motivated by "a mixture of spite, national pride, and professional jealousy".
Paul Bunyan met with wholesale critical disapproval, and the 'Sinfonia da Requiem' (already rejected by its Japanese sponsors because of its overtly Christian nature) received a mixed reception when Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic premiered it in March 1941.
The reputation of the work was much enhanced when Koussevitzky took it up shortly afterwards.

Return to England

In 1942 Britten read the work of the poet George Crabbe for the first time.
The Borough, set on the Suffolk coast, awakened in him such longings for England that he knew he must return.
He also knew that he must write an opera based on Crabbe's poem about the fisherman Peter Grimes. 
Before Britten left the US, Koussevitzky, always generous in encouraging new talent, offered him a $1,000 commission to write the opera.
Britten and Pears returned to England in April 1942.
During the long transatlantic sea crossing Britten completed the choral works 'A Ceremony of Carols' and 'Hymn to St Cecilia'.
The latter was his last large-scale collaboration with Auden.
Britten had grown away from him, and Auden became one of the composer's so-called "corpses" – former intimates from whom he completely cut off contact once they had outlived their usefulness to him or offended him in some way.
Having arrived in Britain, Britten and Pears applied for recognition as conscientious objectors; Britten was initially allowed only non-combatant service in the military, but on appeal he gained unconditional exemption.
After the death of his mother in 1937 he had used money she bequeathed him to buy the Old Mill in Snape, Suffolk which became his country home.
He spent much of his time there in 1944 working on the opera 'Peter Grimes'.
Pears joined Sadler's Wells Opera Company, whose artistic director, the singer Joan Cross, announced her intention to re-open the company's home base in London with Britten's opera, casting herself and Pears in the leading roles.
There were complaints from company members about supposed favouritism, and the "cacophony" of Britten's score, as well as some ill-suppressed homophobic remarks.
Peter Grimes opened in June 1945 and was hailed by public and critics; its box-office takings matched or exceeded those for La bohème and Madame Butterfly, which were staged during the same season.
The opera administrator Lord Harewood called it "the first genuinely successful British opera, Gilbert and Sullivan apart, since Purcell."
Dismayed by the in-fighting among the company, Cross, Britten and Pears severed their ties with Sadler's Wells in December 1945, going on to found what was to become the English Opera Group.
A month after the opening of Peter Grimes, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin went to Germany to give recitals to concentration camp survivors.
Britten then wrote 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra' (1945), written for an educational film, 'Instruments of the Orchestra', directed by Muir Mathieson and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the great Malcolm Sargent.
It became, and remained, his most often played and popular work - and probably one of his best.
Britten's next opera, 'The Rape of Lucretia', was presented at the first post-war Glyndebourne Festival in 1946.
It was then taken on tour to provincial cities under the banner of the "Glyndebourne English Opera Company", an uneasy alliance of Britten and his associates with John Christie, the autocratic proprietor of Glyndebourne.
The tour lost money heavily, and Christie announced that he would underwrite no more tours.
Britten and his associates set up the English Opera Group; the librettist Eric Crozier and the designer John Piper joined Britten as artistic directors.
The group's express purpose was to produce and commission new English operas and other works, presenting them throughout the country.
Britten wrote the 'comic' opera 'Albert Herring' for the group in 1947; while on tour in the new work Pears came up with the idea of mounting a festival in the small Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, where Britten had moved from Snape earlier in the year, and which became his principal residence for the rest of his life.

Aldeburgh - the 1950s

The Aldeburgh Festival was launched in June 1948, with Britten, Pears and Crozier directing it.
'Albert Herring' played at the Jubilee Hall, and Britten's new cantata for tenor, chorus and orchestra, Saint Nicolas, was presented in the parish church.
The festival became an annual event that has continued into the 21st century.
New works by Britten featured in almost every festival until his death in 1976, including the premières of his operas 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Jubilee Hall in 1960 and 'Death in Venice' at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1973.
Unlike many leading English composers, Britten was not known as a teacher, but in 1949 he accepted his only private pupil, Arthur Oldham, who studied with him for three years.
Oldham made himself useful, acting as musical assistant and arranging 'Variations on a Theme' by Frank Bridge for full orchestra for the Frederick Ashton ballet 'Le Rêve de Léonor '(1949), but he later described the teacher–pupil relationship as "beneficial five per cent to [Britten] and ninety-five per cent to me !"
Throughout the 1950s Britten continued to write operas.
'Billy Budd' (1951) was well received at its Covent Garden première and was regarded by reviewers as an advance on 'Peter Grimes'.
'Gloriana' (1953), written to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, had a cool reception at the gala première in the presence of the Queen and the British Establishment en masse.
The downbeat story of Elizabeth I in her decline, and Britten's score – reportedly thought by members of the premier's audience "too modern" for such a gala – did not overcome what Matthews calls the "ingrained philistinism" of the ruling classes.
Although Gloriana did well at the box office, there were no further productions in Britain for another 13 years.
'The Turn of the Screw' the following year was a success; together with 'Peter Grimes' it became, and at 2013 remained, one of the two most frequently performed of Britten's operas.
In the 1950s the "fervently anti-homosexual" Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, urged the police to enforce the laws making homosexual acts illegal.
Britten and Pears came under scrutiny; Britten was visited by police officers in 1953 and was so perturbed that he discussed with his assistant Imogen Holst the possibility that Pears might have to enter a sham marriage (with whom is unclear). In the end nothing was done.
An increasingly important influence on Britten was the music of the East, an interest that was fostered by a tour there with Pears in 1957, when Britten once again encountered the music of the Balinese gamelan and saw for the first time Japanese Noh plays, which he called "some of the most wonderful drama I have ever seen."
These eastern influences were seen and heard in the ballet 'The Prince of the Pagodas' (1957) and later in two of the three semi-operatic "Parables for Church Performance": 'Curlew River' (1964) and 'The Prodigal Son' (1968).

The 1960s

By the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its customary venues, and plans to build a new concert hall in Aldeburgh were not progressing.
When redundant Victorian maltings buildings in the village of Snape, six miles inland, became available for hire, Britten realised that the largest of them could be converted into a concert hall and opera house.
The 830-seat Snape Maltings hall was opened by the Queen at the start of the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival on 2 June 1967; it was immediately hailed as one of the best concert halls in the country.
The hall was destroyed by fire in 1969, but Britten was determined that it would be rebuilt in time for the following year's festival, which it was.
The Queen again attended the opening performance in 1970.
The Maltings gave the festival a venue that could comfortably house large orchestral works and operas. Britten conducted the first performance outside Russia of Shostakovich's Fourteenth Symphony at Snape in 1970.
Shostakovich, a friend since 1960, dedicated the symphony to Britten; he was himself the dedicatee of 'The Prodigal Son'.
Two other Russian musicians who were close to Britten and regularly performed at the festival were the pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
Britten composed his cello suites, 'Cello Symphony' and 'Cello Sonata' for Rostropovich, who premièred them at the Aldeburgh Festival.
One of the best known of Britten's works, the 'War Requiem', was premiered in 1962.
He had been asked four years earlier to write a work for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, a modernist building designed by Basil Spence.
The old cathedral had been left in ruins by an air-raid on the city in 1940 in which hundreds of people died.
Britten decided that his work would commemorate the dead of both World Wars in a large-scale score for soloists, chorus, chamber ensemble and orchestra.
His text interspersed the traditional Requiem Mass with poems by Wilfred Owen.

click below

In 1967 the BBC commissioned Britten to write an opera specially for television.
'Owen Wingrave' was based, like 'The Turn of the Screw', on a ghost story by Henry James.
By the 1960s Britten found composition much slower than in his prolific youth; he told the 28-year-old composer Nicholas Maw, "Get as much done now as you can, because it gets much, much more difficult as you grow older."
He did not complete the score of the new opera until August 1970.
Owen Wingrave was first broadcast in Britain in May 1971, when it was also televised in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the USA and Yugoslavia.

Last Years

In September 1970 Britten asked Myfanwy Piper, who had adapted the two Henry James stories for him, to turn another prose story into a libretto.
This was Thomas Mann's novella 'Death in Venic'e, a subject he had been considering for some time.
At an early stage in composition Britten was told by his doctors that a heart operation was essential if he was to live for more than two years.
He was determined to finish the opera and worked urgently to complete it before going into hospital for surgery.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice
'Death in Venice' is based on the novella 'Death in Venice' by Thomas Mann.
Myfanwy Piper wrote the English libretto.
It was first performed at Snape Maltings, near Aldeburgh, England, on 16 June 1973.
The astringent score is marked by sounds-capes of "ambiguous Venice".

Thomas Mann (born Paul Thomas Mann) (6 June 1875 – 12 August 1955) was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist and 1929 Nobel laureate. His highly symbolic and ironic epic novels and novellas, are noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. His analysis and critique of the European and German soul used modernized German and Biblical stories, as well as the ideas of Goethe, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Despite his evident homosexual longings, Mann fell in love with Katia Pringsheim, daughter of a wealthy, secular Jewish industrialist family, whom he married in 1905. She later joined the Lutheran church; the couple had six children.

Death in Venice
The boy Tadzio is portrayed by a silent dancer, to gamelan-like percussion accompaniment.
It was originally intended for the boy Tadzio to dance naked, but Britten had second thoughts, and opted for 'swimwear' for the object of Gustav von Aschenbach's 'attentions'.
There have, however, been later versions of 'Death in Venice' featuring a nude Tadzio.
Britten had been contemplating the novella for many years and began work in September 1970 with approaches to Piper and to Golo Mann, son of the author.
Because of agreements between Warner Brothers and the estate of Thomas Mann for the production of Luchino Visconti's 1971 film, Britten was advised not to see the movie when it was released.
According to Colin Graham, director of the first production of the opera, some colleagues of the composer who did see the film found the relationship between Tadzio and Aschenbach "too sentimental and salacious" (?).
This contributed to the decision that Tadzio and his family and friends would be portrayed by non-speaking dancers.


After the completion of the opera Britten went into the National Heart Hospital and was operated on in May 1973 to replace a failing heart valve.
The replacement was successful, but he suffered a stroke, affecting his right hand.
This brought his career as a performer to an end.
While in hospital Britten became friendly with a senior nursing sister, Rita Thomson; she moved to Aldeburgh in 1974 and looked after him until his death.
Britten's last works include the 'Suite on English Folk Tunes' "A Time There Was" (1974); the 'Third String Quartet' (1975), which drew on material from Death in Venice; and the dramatic cantata 'Phaedra' (1975), written for Janet Baker.
In the last year of his life Britten accepted a life peerage – the first composer so honoured – and in July 1976 became Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.
After the 1976 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten and Pears travelled to Norway, where Britten began writing 'Praise We Great Men', for voices and orchestra based on a poem by Edith Sitwell.
He returned to Aldeburgh in August, and wrote 'Welcome Ode' for children's choir and orchestra.
In November, Britten realised that he could no longer compose.
On his 63rd birthday, 22 November, at his request Rita Thomson organised a champagne party and invited his friends and his sisters Barbara and Beth, to say their goodbyes to the dying composer.
When Rostropovich made his farewell visit a few days later, Britten gave him what he had written of 'Praise We Great Men'.
Britten died of congestive heart failure on 4 December 1976.
His funeral service was held at Aldeburgh Parish Church three days later, and he was buried in its churchyard, with a gravestone carved by Reynolds Stone.
The authorities at Westminster Abbey had offered burial there, but Britten had made it clear that he wished his grave to be side by side with that, in due course, of Pears.
A memorial service was held at the Abbey on 10 March 1977, at which the congregation was headed by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

Personal Life and Character

Despite his large number of works on Christian themes, Britten was almost certainly agnostic.
Politically, Britten was on the left.

Benjamin Britten - Nude
Physically, Britten was never robust.
He walked and swam regularly and kept himself as fit as he could, but Carpenter in his 1992 biography mentions 20 illnesses, a few of them minor but most fairly serious, suffered over the years by Britten before his final heart complaint developed.
Emotionally, according to some commentators, Britten never completely grew up, retaining in his outlook something of an adolescent's view of the world.
He was not always confident that he was the genius others declared him to be, and though he was hypercritical of his own works, he was acutely, even aggressively sensitive to criticism from anybody else.
Britten was, as he acknowledged, notorious for dumping friends and colleagues who either offended him or ceased to be of use – his "corpses".
Britten undoubtedly had paedophilic tenancies, and 13-year-old boys were Britten's ideal.

Benjamin Britten and Boy
Benjamin Britten
and boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir School
He liked to imagine himself as still thirteen years old and once explained his ability to write so well for children, "It's because I'm still thirteen".
Britten was a known homosexual and lived with his long-time partner Peter Pears.
Nevertheless, there was frequent and continuing comments about Britten's infatuation with boys.
Britten would provide each new favourite with gifts and treats, and was a prolific letter-writer.
Britten had a close friendship with Wolfgang "Wulff" Scherchen (son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, whom he met when Wulff was 14 and Britten 21.
Five years later in 1939, Britten dedicated the song "Antique" from his suite of Rimbaud settings to Wulff.
The relationship with Wulff overlapped Britten's meeting with Peter Pears – Pears is also the dedicatee of a song in the Rimbaud cycle.
Thirteen-year-old Piers Dunkerley, whom Britten met aged 20 and described as "emphatically good-looking", was another early favourite although there were many others.
Britten's had a friendship with Humphrey Maud, which started when the boy was nine.
They became close friends a few years later when Humphrey was at Eton.
Humphrey's father Sir John Maud, who was then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education.
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy was another friend of Britten.
Fourteen-year-old Jonny "could not help flirting slightly" and saw "at once aware I attracted him". 
Jonny and his siblings and cousins provided the children's names for Britten's opera 'The Little Sweep'.
David Spenser was thirteen years old when he had the role of Harry in Britten's opera 'Albert Herring'.
When he first went to stay with Britten at Crag House, they shared a double bed.
Not all Britten's young boys were musicians.
He was very fond of a local boy Robin Long, known as "Nipper", and he used to take the boy sailing.
Roger Duncan was aged eleven when he first met Britten.
Roger's father was the writer Ronald Duncan, the librettist of 'The Rape of Lucretia'.
Both Roger and Humphrey Stone, another young friend, recall enjoying regular naked midnight swims with Britten.
Britten fell into the regular habit, which he maintained all his life, of choosing young male musicians or performers to stay at his home and work with him.
He seemed to be selective and monogamous in a way, falling in love with one boy at a time, keeping a dose friendship with him until he reached his late teens, and then drifting to another younger partner.
(Numerous letters from Britten to these boys survive.)
Most all of Britten's works have pivotal roles for young boy singers, and Britten would choose the boy for such a role, and begin rigorous training with him, which would end with long stays at his home.
Britten would find excuses for a level of intimacy beyond what our culture would consider appropriate (sharing a bed, kissing, nude swimming).
Britten's fascination with his young stars prompted the most scandalous rumours within his opera troupe.
Some of Britten's associates found  his insistence of personal, private tutoring of the young boys disturbing, and felt the subject matter of the works was consistently inappropriate for the young singers.
Most parents, however, seemed quite pleased with his attentions to their sons.
Whether this was a result of Britten's natural charm, his selection process, or his fame in music circles is difficult to say.
Britten's behaviour, and the blind eye turned to it from a society only a few decades distant from our own, is quite revealing of the changes going on in contemporary Western culture.
Britten's style, after all, is consistent with that of a prominent, popular, contemporary musician with whom we are all familiar.
Benjamin Britten was inspired by his love of young boys to write extensively for children, and particularly for boy trebles.
Among his best known works are 'The Turn of the Screw', with the dark relationship between Quint and Miles, and 'Death in Venice', based on Thomas Mann's novella about the tragic love of a novelist for the beautiful young boy, Tadzio.

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