The Suffolk-born pianist, composer and conductor wrote music from boyhood and achieved global success, but never strayed from his East Anglian roots.
Edward Benjamin Britten was one of Britain’s leading composers of the 20th Century. Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk in 1913, he was exposed to music throughout his childhood courtesy of his mother, a keen amateur singer. By the age of five Britten was composing musical works, and by six had written a play and took lessons in piano and viola throughout his childhood.
At prep and secondary school the young Britten composed music; in later years he said: “[I] wrote reams and reams of it.” It was during this time that he heard Frank Bridge’s modern orchestra The Sea in concert, conducted by the composer himself, which became a pivotal moment in Britten’s life, being “knocked sideways” by the experience. His music teacher introduced him to Bridge at age 14, and a deal was struck for Britten to travel regularly to London to study composition with the composer and take piano lessons from distinguished pianist Harold Samuel. During this time Britten composed his String Quartet in F and Quatre Chansons Francaises.
First Professional Steps
In 1930, at age 17, Britten won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, studying with Ralph Vaughan Williams among others, with prize wins for composition liberally sprinkled throughout his three years there. His oboe quartet Phantasy was broadcast on the BBC in summer 1933, and his choral work A Boy Was Born, written for the BBC Singers, was performed by them the following year. After graduation, a job interview with the BBC’s director of music led to an invitation to write music scores for the General Post Office Film Unit, working alongside the poet WH Auden.
Three years of score composition for theatre, cinema and radio followed and then in 1937, Britten met the tenor Peter Pears, who would become Britten’s life-long friend, and eventually partner. The two travelled to North America together in 1939, and when the Second World War broke out the British embassy advised them to stay in the US, which they did until 1942. Considered to be a hugely influential time in Britten’s music, he was inspired by the composers Aaron Copland and Colin McPhee, and exposed to Balinese gamelan, a percussive Indonesian traditional music which inspired some of his later works.
Return to England
It was a reading of the Suffolk poet George Crabbe’s work, set on the East Anglian coastline, that is said to have pulled Britten back to England. Using his country home at Snape in Suffolk as a base, he began composing his opera Peter Grimes, based on the character in Crabbe’s poem. It opened at Sadler’s Wells with Peter Pears in the lead role in 1945. Today, it is considered by some to be the greatest English opera ever written.
In 1947, Britten and Pears moved to the small Suffolk town of Aldeburgh, and proposed the idea of establishing a music festival there. The Aldeburgh Festival launched the following June, and continues as a popular annual event today.
In the following years, Britten continued his prolific work ethic, composing notable works such as Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw. In 1952, he accepted a commission to compose a work for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II the following year. The three act opera Gloriana, set towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, which tells the story of her relationship with the Earl of Essex, premiered on 8 June 1953 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. During this time, Britten invited Imogen Holst to Aldeburgh to assist in organising the festival and later to help with his work on Gloriana, particularly preparing the vocal and piano scores for the opera. The pressure felt by the two during the nine-month process was later dramatised in the BBC Radio 3 play Imo and Ben, and is now being brought to stage in Stratford-upon-Avon as the powerful new play: Ben and Imo, by Mark Ravenhill.
In the decades that followed, Britten composed countless works, including one of his best known, War Requiem, performed at the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral. But Britten's health, which had never been robust, was starting to fail, and in 1973 he underwent heart surgery to replace a valve. A minor stroke followed, rendering him unable to conduct professionally. He died of congenital heart failure on 4 December 1976 and was buried in Aldeburgh.