Benjamin Britten

Edward Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, in Suffolk, Lowestoft, the son of a dentist with a passion for music (and a certain artistic talent). Since childhood Benjamin began to compose with a certain constancy: after studying at Gresham’s School, in 1927 he took private lessons from Frank Bridge. Having enrolled at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland (albeit with little enthusiasm), he attracted attention at the age of twenty-one when he wrote the choral variation “A boy was born” for the BBC Singers. It was 1934: the following year he met Wystan Hugh Auden, with whom he worked on several works, including the song cycle “Our hunting fathers”: between the two, however, the harmony is not limited to the artistic vision, but also to the radicality of the political vision.
At that time Britten tried to break away from the most important current of his country’s music scene, which he considered amateurish and complacent, but he found himself confronted with the critics of the time, who did not consider his cosmopolitanism and even less his admiration for artists such as Stravinsky, Berg or Mahler. In 1936 Benjamin Britten wrote the music for “Night mail”, a documentary film with commentary by Auden, and met the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he began to collaborate assiduously and who also became a life companion. The couple follows Auden to the United States in the late 1930s: in the American continent, Benjamin composes the first of his many songs for Pears and his first opera on Auden’s libretto. During that period he also worked on numerous operas for orchestra, including the “Symphony of Requiem” and several concerts for violin and piano. In 1942 his “Diversions on a Theme” (op. 21 for piano with left hand) was performed for the first time under the direction of Eugene Ormandy in the Symphony Hall of the American Academy of Music in Philadelphia. In the same year, Benjamin Britten returns with Pears to England: during the sea voyage he concludes “A ceremony of carols” and “Hymn to Santa Cecilia” (a choral work representing his last collaboration with Auden). Then, he continued with the production of “Peter Grimes”: the first was staged in 1945 at Sadler’s Wells and was an exceptional success.
A year later he composed one of his most famous works, entitled “The young person’s guide to the orchestra”, made to accompany the educational film.”Instruments of the orchestra” wanted and produced by the British government. The work uses as its central theme a melody taken from Purcell’s “Abdelazar” (and in fact, it is subtitled “Variations and fugue on a theme of Purcell”) and proposes individual variations for all the instruments of the orchestra, starting with the woodwinds and continuing with the strings, brass, and percussion. The film also features a spoken commentary, which is normally eliminated in recordings and concerts. While in September 1946 at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera she conducted “The rape of Lucretia” with Pears and Kathleen Ferrier, Britten became aware of the increasing hostility she encountered in certain circles of English music: for this reason, she decided to withdraw from the London scene. She founded the English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival between 1947 and 1948, also to stage her work. After conducting, at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the first performance of “Albert Herring” with the English Opera Group, in 1949 he sees his composition “Spring Symphony” op. 44 in 4 parts for soprano, alto, tenor, choir, treble voice choir and orchestra performed for the first time in Tanglewood, Berkshire Music Center, and Lenox, Massachusetts, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky. In 1950 his composition “Lachymae, Reflections on a song of John Dowland” was performed for the first time at Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. The following year he composed “Billy Budd”, inspired by the story written by Herman Melville, while “Gloriana”, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, dates back to 1953. The following year, Benjamin Britten directed “The Turn of the Screw (opera)”. (“The turn of the screw”, inspired by the story of Henry James) in Venice, premiered at the Teatro La Fenice. In the second half of the fifties, Benjamin – together with his companion – makes a journey to the East, which is reflected in his later compositions. In particular, Japanese and Indonesian music remains a task: an interest that is reflected in “The prince of the pagodas”, but also in “Curlew River”, “The burning fiery furnace” and “The prodigal son”, a series of “Parables for Church Performance”. In 1958 Britten attended the first performance of his “Songs from the Chinese” at the Great Glemham House; in the following years, he produced a short antiphonal and polytonal piece for three trumpets, “Fanfare for St Edmundsbury”, and above all “A midsummer night’s dream”, inspired by Shakespeare’s work of the same name. The most important success of Benjamin Britten’s career came a few years later: in 1962 he wrote the “War Requiem”, composed for the reopening of Coventry Cathedral, which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra with Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Visnevskaja as soloists. The following year, the opera was recorded with Decca Records: at the same time, Britten conducted the English Opera Group in Edinburgh in “The Beggar’s Opera”, with Pears, Janet Baker, and Heather Harper. In the Seventies, the British composer and pianist had to deal with increasing health problems that made his works more evanescent and sporadic: the 1973 opera “Death in Venice” (inspired by Thomas Mann’s famous opera) dates back to 1973, while two years later is the “Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was'”. In 1976 he was appointed Baron of Aldeburgh: that year, after writing the dramatic cantata “Phaedra” for Janet Baker, Benjamin Britten died on December 4 due to a heart attack.

Discography

  • Bach, Passione Giovanni – Britten/Pears/Howell/Harper,
  • Britten, Albert Herring – Britten/Pears/Fischer/Noble, 1964 Decca
  • Britten, Guida orch./Simple symphony/Var. Frank Bridge/Sea Interludes – Britten/LSO/ECO, 1958/1968
  • Britten, Peter Grimes – Britten/Watson/Pears/Kelly, 1958 Decca
  • Britten, The masterpieces – Il Meglio di Britten, 1958/1968 Decca
  • Britten, War requiem – Britten/Pears/Fischer-Dieskau, 1963 Decca 
  • Award for Best Choral Performance 1964 e Grammy Hall of Fame Award 1998
  • Schubert Debussy Schumann, Son. arpeggione/Son. vlc. e pf – Rostropovich/Britten, 1961/1968
  • Elgar, Il Sogno di Geronte, London Symphony Orchestra, 1971
  • Britten, Opere complete + DVD The burning fiery furnace (1967)