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Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten (born on St Cecilia’s Day in 1913, passing away from heart failure in 1976), worked his way up from “very ordinary middle class” beginnings in a fishing town in Suffolk to become “Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten, OM CH”, and was one of the most famous twentieth-century composers in the world. He deserves a biography each for his roles as pianist, festival administrator, and conductor — not just composer. But it is through his compositions that he will live on most memorably, and apart from brief, introductory stops at The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, most especially his operas, which have made him far and away the most important operatic composer born in the twentieth century.

In his chapter on Britten in Surprised by Beauty, Robert R. Reilly wrote: “Britten may be the figure of his generation in the pantheon of the English neo-Renaissance whose music will be heard two centuries from now. He was the first English composer since Purcell, two and a half centuries his predecessor, to compose masterpieces in so many genres — theatrical, operatic, vocal, orchestra, chamber, and choral.”

Unlike his very English and British contemporaries (Vaughan Williams, Holst, or his mentor and teacher Frank Bridge), Britten was not a quintessentially British composer, but rather a quintessentially international composer. His operas, chiefly among them Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Turn of the Screw, are masterpieces of music-theater, psychologically dense and gripping like those of Leoš Janáček; or plays by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov.

The output of his eight concertos is interesting to trace, because it also chronicles Britten’s life, starting with the 1932 Double Concerto for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra (an advanced student work that Britten composed a year after he had received the Royal College of Music’s Ernest Farrar Prize for Composition) and ending with 1962’s Cello Symphony. His Piano Concerto No.1, written after he moved into the Old Mill at Snape (where in 1948 Britten would found the Aldeburgh Festival), was one of his first public successes, premiered at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood. With the war looming, Britten and his partner Peter Pears sailed to America where his first composition upon arrival was the Violin Concerto, the only Britten concerto to become a repertoire staple. In its shadow are a second piano concerto, aborted, that became Young Apollo, the 1940 Concerto for Piano Left Hand called Diversions on a Theme and Piano Concerto for Piano Four Hands, named “Scottish Ballad,” his last composition before returning to England in 1942. A Clarinet Concerto for Benny Goodman in 1942 went unfinished.

The pianist Britten was a brilliant accompanist for Pears in Schubert’s great Lieder cycles, or for Rostropovich in Cello Sonatas, or Sviatoslav Richter in Schubert’s F minor Fantasy for 4 Hands. The conductor Britten shaped not only definitive accounts of his own works, but was also a quality trailblazer with the English Chamber Orchestra in neglected Schumann (Faust Scenes), Bach (Brandenburg Concertos), Mozart (Piano Concertos with Clifford Curzon), and Purcell (Fairy Queen).

Of his own music, Britten said: “I write music for human beings — directly and deliberately… I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, and, to use Berenson’s phrase, ‘to enhance their lives’.” It does that, still today, and will, for centuries to come. — Jens F. Laurson

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