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biography - Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten (November 22, 1913 - December 4, 1976) was a British composer and pianist. He is generally considered to be the greatest British composer since World War II, and some say the greatest since Henry Purcell.

He was born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, lived in the USA from c.1939 to 1942 and died in Aldeburgh.

Some of his works were based on British folk songs, and they, like many of his operatic roles, were intended to be sung by his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 and became a life peer in 1976.

One of Britten's best known works is the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government. It has the subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, and takes a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazar as its central theme. Britten gives individual variations to each of the instruments in the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. In the original film there was a spoken commentary, but this is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.


Even today, twenty-five years after his death, it may be too early to achieve an objective assessment of the quality of Britten's works. This is because of the intense partisanship which surrounded it during his lifetime. When Britten's early works began to appear, musical criticism in England was deeply reactionary. Only a few years before, a new work by Gustav Holst had been roundly condemned for not following the rules of 18th century figured bass. As the first British composer to turn his back on traditional 'englishisms' and embrace a continental culture fully, Britten met considerable hostility from those who found his music slick and 'clever' in the wrong sense. There was also a good deal of envy and resentment at the fortunate support and publicity his music quickly attracted from publishers and record companies.

The result of this hostility was that Britten's friends and supporters intensified their efforts to proclaim his genius, with the result that all his work was of the same high quality.

Perhaps the truth will be seen to lie somewhere in the middle. The present contributor considers Britten an uneven composer who possessed a unique and strong musical identity and personality, and who produced some works of enduring quality, such as Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, but who also, it must be admitted, had several fallow periods where he seemed to repeat a few well-worn devices. It must be remembered that Britten worked very quickly, often against punishing deadlines, and the techniques he evolved in writing illustrative music for the cinema in the 1930s served him for the rest of his life, not always with the most satisfying results.


  • Music for the famous GPO documentary film Night Mail (1936) with words by W. H. Auden
  • Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937)
  • Ceremony of Carols (USA, 1942)
  • Serenade (USA, 1943)
  • Peter Grimes (USA, 1945), an opera based on a folk tale about a Suffolk fisherman
  • The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946)
  • The Rape of Lucretia (1946)
  • Billy Budd (1951), after Herman Melville's novel)
  • Gloriana (1953) for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom
  • Turn of the Screw (1954), an opera based on the story by Henry James
  • Noye's Fludde (1958)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960)
  • War Requiem (1961) - a major bestseller, regarded as his masterpiece, although its great emotional intensity was too much for some critics.
  • Curlew River (1964)
  • The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966)

Britten (1913-1976) was a "compleat" musician: composer, pianist, accompanist, conductor, arranger, editor. He did everything a musician could do, and did all of it brilliantly--particularly in the realm of opera. Few 20th-century composers have placed as many works in the active repertory, and none have shown a greater gift for setting music to words.

recommended recordings
Britten: Peter Grimes / Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Benjamin Britten
Performer: Owen Brannigan, Lauris Elms, et al.
Ensemble: Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra
Uni/London Classics - #14577 / July 7, 1987

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Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes not only single-handedly revitalized the genre of English opera, but was also the most profoundly original and dramatically groundbreaking opera in this century and possibly the most significant English dramatic musical work ever written. Its subject, a misfit fisherman whose confrontation with society and its unforgiving rules leads to his ultimate destruction, was a vehicle for more important subthemes, not least of which was Britten's ongoing near-obsession...Read more

Britten: Peter Grimes / Davis, Vickers, Harper, et al
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Performer: Thomas Allen, Elisabeth Bainbridge, et al.
Ensemble: Royal Opera House Covent Garden Chorus, Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra
Uni/Philips - #462847 / June 15, 1999

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Let me begin by saying that Benjamin Britten is one of my favorite composers. Add to that the fact that I had the extreme pleasure/privilege of actually hearing & seeing Jon Vickers live in this, arguably, his finest role. And, if that weren't enough, Sir Colin Davis is certainly known to be one... Read more

Britten: Billy Budd / Nagano, Hampson, Rolfe-Johnson, et al
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Performer: Andrew Burden, William Dazeley, et al.
Ensemble: Hallé City Chorus, Hallé Orchestra, et al.
Wea/Atlantic/Erato - #21631 / May 19, 1998

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Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," based on Melville's story, is the second-best opera about life on the sea since Wagner's "Flying Dutchman"--the best being Britten's "Peter Grimes." It is one of the 20th Century's most tragic operas and the only important opera with an all-male cast. Its music evokes the ocean: the winds and waves, the sailors' songs, and the harsh realities of a seaman's life on a British 18th-century man-of-war. It climaxes in a deadly confrontation between pure good, embodied...Read more

Britten: War Requiem / Britten, Vishnevskaya, Pears
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Benjamin Britten
Performer: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Sir Peter Pears, et al.
Ensemble: Bach Choir, Highgate School Chorus, et al.
Uni/London Classics - #14383 / July 7, 1987

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The composer's 1963 recording remains, after 35 years, the preferred account, unequaled in its scope and emotional intensity. It brings together the three soloists for whom the work was written, chosen not only because of their artistry but because they represented three of the nations most deeply scarred by World War II--the Soviet Union, England, and Germany. Benjamin Britten holds the vast forces together, and the superbly engineered recording captures with chilling exactitude the power and...Read more

Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, etc / Westminister Cathedral
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: David Hill
Performer: Sioned Williams, James O'Donnell
Ensemble: Westminster Cathedral Choir
Hyperion (UK) - #66220 / September 17, 1997

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Of the many accounts of Britten's Ceremony of Carols in the catalog, this one is the best. This was the first work Britten wrote for boys' voices, and with his keen ear and extraordinary imagination, he achieved many wondrous and memorable effects. At the heart of this 1986 performance are the boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir, obviously a well-trained group. With their outstanding intonation and hearty sound, these London boys outclass all the competition. Their singing is free and...Read more

Britten: Young Person's Guide to The Orchestra / Britten
Composer: Benjamin Britten
Conductor: Benjamin Britten
Ensemble: English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra
Uni/London Classics - #17509 / July 7, 1987

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In this century, few composers have been as well-equipped to perform their own works as Benjamin Britten. An accomplished pianist and conductor, he was used to working in front of the microphone and was able to record most of his own works, some more than once. Despite the continuing popularity of these scores with other conductors, the composer's own versions have held up very well. Britten's account of the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, recorded in 1963 with the London Symphony, shows...Read more

works & recordings

  • Chamber Music
    Trios, Quartets, Quintets

  • Choral
    Secular and sacred choral music. Oratorios, Masses, Partsongs, Hymns, Carols

  • Instrumental
    Sonatas, Suites, Overtures, Minuets, Variations, Transcriptions, Dance Music

  • Orchestra
    Concertos, Symphonies

  • Theatrical Works
    Ballet, Stage, Incidental Music, Film Scores

  • Vocal and Opera
    Opera, Operetta, Song, Lieder, Musical Theater
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