Benjamin Britten was one of the most important British composers of the 20th century. He was also a conductor, viola player and pianist. He gave new life to English opera, bringing it into the modern age.
Britten mostly wrote for voice but also composed instrumental pieces. His personal style was shaped by a wide range of influences - the Elizabethan masters, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Debussy and Schoenberg. Britten can however very much be seen as the direct heir of Purcell, in his ability to set the English language to music.
After having learnt rudimentary piano, he began studying at Gresham School in Norfolk with Franck Bridge, then at the Royal College of Music in London with John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin. His had some success with his first compositions (Simple Symphony and pieces for Oboe and Strings). During this period he met Peter Pears, a tenor, who quickly took on an importance in both his musical career and private life.
In 1937, Britten received international recognition thanks to Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. He exiled himself to the United States, fleeing political instability in Europe (at this time he composed the Sinfonia da Requiem and Paul Bunyan). He returned to the United Kingdom in 1942. His triumphant composition Peter Grimes (1945) marks the rebirth of English opera. This was built upon with the creation of the English Opera Group two years later and the founding of the Aldeburgh Festival. He often wrote specifically for voices he admired; he dedicated works to Kathleen Ferier, Dietrich Ficher-Dieskau and Janet Baker.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Benjamin Britten
1934: Britten's first notable success at the ISCM Music Festival
1939: Exile in the United States.
1942: Returned to the United Kingdom.
1946: Creation of the English Opera Group, who hope to revive English opera.
1948: Aldeburgh Festival premiere, with singer Peter Pears.
1976: Britten appointed as a Peer of the Realm by Queen Elizabeth II (first composer to become a Lord).
Six Key Works by Benjamin Britten
1945: Peter Grimes, 3 Act opera – libretto by Montagu Slater based on a poem by George Crabbe (debuted in London)
1946: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and a Fugue based on a theme by Purcell), orchestral work in 15 movements
1951: Billy Budd, an opera in 4 acts – libretto by Edward Morgan Foster and Crozier, based on the book by Herman Melville (debuted in London)
1954: The Turn of the Screw, possibly Britten’s masterpiece
1962: War Requiem, Vocal work for 3 soloists, a choir, children’s choir, organ and 2 orchestras