Benjamin Britten

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Born: 22 November 1913

Died: 4 December 1976


Benjamin Britten was a British composer, conductor, and pianist. Britten was born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, the son of a dentist and a talented amateur musician. His birthday, 22 November, is the feast-day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and he showed musical gifts very early in life. He began composing prolifically as a child, and was educated at Old Buckenham Hall School in Suffolk, a small all-boys prep school, and Gresham's School, Holt. In 1927, he began private lessons with Frank Bridge. He also studied, less happily, at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland and with some input from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although ultimately held back by his parents (at the suggestion of College staff), Britten had also intended to study with Alban Berg in Vienna. His first compositions to attract wide attention were the Sinfonietta (Op. 1) and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1934 for the BBC Singers. The following year he met W. H. Auden with whom he collaborated on the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers, radical both in politics and musical treatment, and other works. Of more lasting importance was his meeting in 1936 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his life partner.

In early 1939, the two of them followed Auden to America. There Britten composed Paul Bunyan, his first opera (to a libretto by Auden), as well as the first of many song cycles for Pears; the period was otherwise remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (written in 1937 for string orchestra), the Violin Concerto, and Sinfonia da Requiem (for full orchestra).

Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942, Britten completing the choral works Hymn to Saint Cecilia (his last collaboration with Auden) and A Ceremony of Carols during the long sea voyage. He had already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes based on the writings of Suffolk poet George Crabbe, and its premiere at Sadler's Wells in 1945 was his greatest success so far. However, Britten was encountering opposition from sectors of the English musical establishment and gradually withdrew from the London scene, founding the English Opera Group in 1947 and the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, partly (though not solely) to perform his own works.

Grimes marked the start of a series of English operas, of which Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were particularly admired. These operas share common themes, with that of the 'outsider' particularly prevalent. Most feature such a character, excluded or misunderstood by society; often this is the protagonist, such as Peter Grimes and Owen Wingrave in their eponymous operas. An increasingly important influence was the music of the East, an interest fostered by a tour with Pears in 1957, when Britten was much struck by the music of the Balinese gamelan and by Japanese Noh plays. The fruits of this tour include the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and the series of semi-operatic "Parables for Church Performance": Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). The greatest success of Britten's career was, however, the musically more conventional War Requiem, written for the 1962 consecration of Coventry Cathedral.

Britten developed close friendships with Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1960s, composing his Cello Suites for the latter and conducting the first Western performance of the former's Fourteenth Symphony; Shostakovich dedicated the score to Britten and often spoke very highly of his music. Britten himself had previously dedicated 'The Prodigal Son' (the third and last of the 'Church Parables') to Shostakovich.

In the last decade or so of his life, Britten suffered from increasing ill-health and his late works became progressively more sparse in texture. They include the opera Death in Venice (1973), the Suite on English Folk Tunes "A Time There Was" (1974) and Third String Quartet (1975), which drew on material from Death in Venice, as well as the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1976), written for Janet Baker.

Having previously declined a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage on 2 July 1976 as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. A few months later he died of heart failure at his house in Aldeburgh in the arms of Peter Pears. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul's Church there. His grave lies next to that of his partner, Sir Peter Pears. The grave of Imogen Holst, a close friend of Britten, can be found directly behind.

The above is an excerpt from Wikipedia. For the full article, click here.

List of choral works

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Vocal/Choral Orchestral

  • Our Hunting Fathers, for soprano or tenor and orchestra (words W. H. Auden) (1936)
  • The Company of Heaven, for speakers, soloists, chorus and orchestra (1937, not performed again until 1989)
  • The World of the Spirit, for speakers, soloists, chorus and orchestra (1938, not performed again until 1998)
  • Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943)
  • Saint Nicolas, for tenor soloist, children's chorus, chorus, and orchestra (1948)
  • Spring Symphony, for soprano, contralto, and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, boys' choir and orchestra (1949)
  • Nocturne, for tenor, 7 obbligato instruments & strings (1958)
  • War Requiem (1961) for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists, chamber ensemble, boys' chorus, mixed chorus, and orchestra
  • Cantata misericordium for tenor and baritone soloists, small chorus, string quartet, string orchestra, piano, harp, timpani (1963)
  • Phaedra for mezzo-soprano, cello, harpsichord, percussion, and string orchestra (Robert Lowell after Jean Racine's Phèdre, 1975)
  • Praise we great men, for soloists, chorus and orchestra (Edith Sitwell) (1976, completed by Colin Matthews 1985)
  • Sea Symphony, for soloists, chorus and orchestra (unrealized, 1976)


  • On this Island for high voice and piano (1937)
  • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo for tenor and piano (1940)
  • The Holy Sonnets of John Donne for tenor and piano (1945)
  • Canticle I: My beloved is mine for tenor and piano (1947)
  • A Charm of Lullabies for mezzo-soprano and piano (1947)
  • Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac for alto (or countertenor), tenor, and piano (1952)
  • Winter Words for high voice and piano (1953)
  • Canticle III: Still falls the rain for tenor, horn and piano (words Edith Sitwell) (1954)
  • Winter Words for tenor and piano, poetry by Thomas Hardy (1954)
  • The Heart of the Matter for narrator, tenor, horn, and piano (1956)
  • Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente for tenor and piano (1958)
  • Songs and Proverbs of William Blake for baritone and piano (1965)
  • The Poet's Echo for soprano and piano (1965)
  • Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi for countertenor, tenor, baritone, and piano (1971)
  • Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus for tenor and harp (1974)
  • A Birthday Hansel for high voice and harp (1975)
  • Eight books of Folksong Arrangements from the British Isles and France. For voice and piano, guitar and harp.


  • A Boy Was Born for treble voices and choir (1933/55)
  • Friday Afternoons for children's voices and piano (1935)
  • A.M.D.G. (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), seven settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins for unaccompanied SATB (1939)
  • A Ceremony of Carols for treble voices and harp (1942); an alternative arrangement for mixed voices and harp (or piano) is popular as well
  • Hymn to St. Cecilia for unaccompanied choir; poem by W. H. Auden (1942)
  • Rejoice in the Lamb for 4 soloists, choir, and organ; text by Christopher Smart (1943)
  • Missa Brevis for boys' voices and organ (1959)
  • Sacred and Profane (8 medieval lyrics) for SSATB (1974-5)


  • Paul Bunyan (1941), based on the American folktale
  • Peter Grimes (1945), based on George Crabbe's The Borough
  • The Rape of Lucretia (1946), after the play Le Viol de Lucrèce by André Obey
  • Albert Herring (1947), after Guy de Maupassant's story Le Rosier de Mme. Husson
  • The Beggar's Opera (1948)
  • Let's Make an Opera (The Little Sweep) (1949), an opera for children
  • Billy Budd (1951), after Herman Melville's novella
  • Gloriana (1953), after Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
  • The Turn of the Screw (1954), based on the novella by Henry James
  • Noye's Fludde (1958), for community performance, based on a mystery play
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), after Shakespeare
  • Owen Wingrave (1971) an opera for television, after the short story by Henry James
  • Death in Venice (1973), based on Thomas Mann's novella
  • An unrealized Christmas opera, intended forces unknown (1976)

Church parables

  • Curlew River (1964), based on a Japanese Noh play
  • The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), after the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3
  • The Prodigal Son (1968), after the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 15


  • The Prince of the Pagodas (1956)

Click here to search for this composer on CPDL


External links

Biographical info:

Musical publisher for Britten's works:

Website of Britten-Pears Foundation: