English composer. He often wrote for individual singers; for example, the role in the opera Peter Grimes (1945), based on verses by George Crabbe, was written for his life companion, the tenor Peter Pears. Among his many works are the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946); the chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia (1946); Billy Budd (1951); A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare; 1960); and Death in Venice (after Thomas Mann; 1973).
Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, Britten was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, Norfolk. He studied piano with Harold Samuel and composition with Frank Bridge. Later, with a scholarship, he studied under Arthur Benjamin and John Ireland at the Royal College of Music, London. He worked in the USA in 1939–42, then returned to England and devoted himself to composing at his home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where he and Pears established an annual music festival in 1948. His oratorio War Requiem (1961) combines the liturgical text with poems by Wilfred Owen, and was written for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962.
Britten's earliest published work was a Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra (1932). His work was included at the International Society for Contemporary Music festivals of 1934, 1936, and 1938. He worked for the GPO Film Unit in 1935–37. His first international success was the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, played at the Salzburg Festival in 1937. This was followed by a number of works which established him as the leading English composer of the day, especially the stark Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) and the Serenade (1943). He was also an excellent pianist and conductor. In 1945 his first major opera, Peter Grimes, established him as a dramatist; it was followed by further operas, including the chamber opera The Turn of the Screw (1954). Other large-scale operas are The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring (after Guy de Maupassant; 1947), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), Noyes Fludde (1958), The Little Sweep for children (1949), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (after Henry James; 1971, commissioned for television), and Death in Venice (1993). Much of Britten's music is inspired by words, as shown by the many song cycles, the Spring Symphony (1949), and the Nocturne (1958); most of his tenor songs and roles were written for Pears. He had a close artistic association with Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich from 1960.
Britten was something of an outsider; the themes of lost innocence, persecution, and isolation are constantly repeated in his music, especially the operas. Once treated with caution by both conservatives and the avant-garde, he is now more widely accepted.
WorksStage operas Peter Grimes (M Slater, after George Crabbe, 1945), The Rape of Lucretia (R Duncan, 1946), Billy Budd (E M Forster and E Crozier, after Herman Melville, 1951, revised 1960), Gloriana (W Plomer, 1953), The Turn of the Screw (M Piper, after Henry James, 1954), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare, 1960), and Death in Venice (M Piper, after Thomas Mann, 1973); ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957).
Choral including A Ceremony of Carols (1942), cantatas Rejoice in the Lamb (C Smart, 1943) and Saint Nicolas (Crozier, 1948), Spring Symphony (1949), War Requiem (1961).
Orchestral including Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge for strings (1937), Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), concertos for piano and for violin (1938–39), cello symphony (1963).
Voice and orchestraLes Illuminations (A Rimbaud, 1939) for high voice and strings, Serenade (various poets) for tenor, horn and strings, Nocturne (various poets, 1958), Phaedra for mezzo and orchestra (1975).
Chamber and instrumental including four string quartets (1931 revised 1974; nos. 1–3, 1941, 1945, 1975); cello sonata, three suites for solo cello; Lachrymae on song by Dowland for viola and piano (also with strings; 1950); Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe.
Song cyclesSeven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), Winter Words (Hardy, 1953), Five Canticles (1947–74).
Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Baron Britten