"Don’t worry what silly people say about influences – unless we were all influenced by someone we’d just write nonsense ...
. . . The decision not to use certain traditional elements has contributed to the well-known divide between modern music and listeners, who react with confusion and boredom to the lack of comprehensible structure." (Britten’s advice to a young composer, 1967)
Britten’s mother, an amateur singer, recognized the talent of her youngest child and was determined to make her “Beni” the fourth of the “great Bs” after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The premiere of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at the 1937 Salzburg Festival launched Britten’s international fame, and the 1945 opera Peter Grimes made him a national hero, a status that was even more firmly established by the War Requiem (1962).
Encouraged by Frank Bridge, his private teacher, Britten first emulated the orchestral sound of Debussy and Ravel. Tenor Peter Pears wrote in an essay that his companion made no claims of being an innovator. Seeking “his own tradition,” he turned to “the purest stream of modern music”: Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Mahler, Berg, and Stravinsky. Drawing on the most varied sources of inspiration, Britten created an unmistakable personal style in which melody, harmony, rhythm, and transparent orchestration form a unity.
Born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, north of Aldeburgh on the east coast of England
First piano lessons at the age of five, first compositions at eight
Starting 1924, composition pupil of Frank Bridge, who also becomes his mentor
1930–1933 studies piano and composition at the Royal College of Music, London
In September 1930 hears Mahler’s Fourth Symphony; speaks enthusiastically about the "clarity and transparency of the instrumentation," the "originality of the melodic forms," and the constant "rhythmic and harmonic tension"
1939 emigrates to the United states for pacifist, artistic, and private reasons
1942 return to England with Peter Pears; Britten’s refusal to participate in the war is accepted first with regard to combatant military service, and then unconditionally
1948 Britten founds the Aldeburgh Festival in his home town of Aldeburgh
July 2, 1976 Britten is elevated to the peerage as “Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in The County of Suffolk”
Dies on December 4, 1976 in his house in Aldeburgh
Did you know?
Born on the name day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music
Intended studies with Alban Berg in Vienna in 1934 do not materialize: teachers at the RCM felt that Berg was "not a suitable person"; Britten’s mother misunderstood this as a moral judgement and forbade her "Beni" from travelling to Vienna
Starting in the mid 1930s, friendship with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who encouraged him to freely express his homosexuality
From 1939 to the end of his life, unconcealed partnership with Peters Pears in a country where, in 1954, up to 1069 men served prison sentences for "same-sex love," as formulated by the law
Many close friendships with boys led to rumors after Britten’s death that were not substantiated; nor was the claim, made in 2013, that he died of complications from an untreated syphilis infection
Gerald Moore, the pianist and celebrated vocal accompanist, turned down invitations to the Aldeburgh Festival; the genius loci was "the greatest accompanist in the world; my services are not needed"
"The taste of the Viennese has always been ‘conservative,’ and my War Requiem is certainly not in a ‘traditionally avant-garde’ language." (Britten's reaction to negative criticism in Vienna, 1963)
With his indebtedness to tradition, Britten earned the contempt of such composer colleagues as Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, and Xenakis as well as many music critics in the 1960s and 1970s
His orchestral and chamber music, and above all his vocal works, are among the most frequently-performed works of a composer born in the 20th century. No work by anyone born in the 20th century is performed as often as Britten’s operas, and only works by Puccini and Richard Strauss written after 1900 appear more often on concert programs worldwide