One of the most fabulously-gifted musicians ever, Edward Benjamin Britten (he dropped the "Edward" fairly early) excelled not only as a composer, but as a conductor and pianist. Many consider him among the five great stylists of Modern English music, along with Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, and Michael Tippett. Although a superb orchestral composer, he also became one of the finest writers for the human voice, with masterful song cycles and choral work.
Britten (November 22, 1913 - December 4, 1976) began composing at a ridiculously early age. He was writing capably even before he mastered spelling, as some titles of his juvenalia show. By eighteen, he had written masterpieces, as shown by recent recordings of early work, including the 4 chansons françaises (1928), a Double Concerto for violin and viola (1932) and 2 Portraits (1930). He studied privately with Frank Bridge, who helped him tighten his craft and who introduced him to the "advanced" European Moderns like Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Alban Berg, all of whom made an impact on the young composer. Bridge remained a musical mentor and advisor to Britten even after the period of formal study. Mahler became another influence.
He entered the Royal College of Music in 1930, where he studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and composition with John Ireland. Ireland exercised more of a psychological hand-holding rather than a real musical influence. Importantly, however, he stood up for the boy and agitated for performances of his student's work in the face of opposition from other faculty. Britten, even as a student, was too far out for the establishment. Nevertheless, even here he wrote lasting work, including the remarkable Sinfonietta, Op. 1 (1932, influenced by Schoenberg's first chamber symphony), A Hymn to the Virgin (1930; rev. 1934), and the massive choral motet A Boy was Born (1933).
In the Thirties, Britten resolutely set his face against most of the British musical scene – particularly British pastoralism and followers of Jean Sibelius – in favor of advanced trends on the continent. He allies Schoenberg and Berg to a Stravinskian technique and a fondness for artistic masks, usually expressed through a heightened sense of parody. Typical works of the period include the Auden cycle Our Hunting Fathers (1936), On This Island (1937), with its Purcellian first song and its fox-trot finale, and Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), almost all parody or evocation of popular genres and styles. Besides the concert work (and to make ends meet), Britten turned out a ton of film scores, theater music, and music for the BBC.
It was in this period that the outlines of Britten criticism were more or less set. One could call it Blinded by Technique. Those against the music essentially disparaged the music as "clever," while those who promoted it at times seemed to believe that great craft meant great music. This was also a time when Britain suffered from a large dose of cultural inferiority. With more wonderful home-grown composers on the ground than in any country in Europe excepting France, critics began to lament their "provinciality," by which they seemed to mean that the dodecaphonists and Béla Bartók weren't popular. However, the dodecaphonists, with the exception of Berg and perhaps Schoenberg, weren't really popular anywhere. Bartók gained a repertory foothold only in his late period, a condition which largely persists. Germany and later Austria had banned much modern music, and most advanced composers had either emigrated or were interred or killed. It's also true that most of the musical establishment leant toward the conservative, and for the most part it had little idea of what to make of Britten's music, although it recognized the craft – hence, the "clever." Incidentally, this charge followed Britten throughout his life. At his death, a critic lumped the composer's music with that of Camille Saint-Saëns. It wasn't a compliment.
Discouraged by the musical state of Britain as well as the political state of Europe, Britten left for North America in 1939 – first Canada, then the United States – with his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Several works came from this expatriation, including Canadian Carnival, Britten's first opera, Paul Bunyan, to a libretto by Auden, Young Apollo, the cycle Les Illuminations, and the magnificent Sinfonia da Requiem. Although the very influential Aaron Copland promoted Britten's work, many other critics, including Virgil Thomson (who called Britten "a local Shostakovich" – again, it wasn't a compliment) dismissed the composer as lightweight.
Britten became disillusioned with the United States ("all the faults of Europe and none of the attractions") and with Pears returned to England in 1942. In America, he had thought long and hard about his artistic identity, influenced by the model of Aaron Copland. He began to want the mantle of national composer and to plan how to reconcile his music to the role. Largely, he rebelled against Vaughan Williams and remade the relevant artistic past. Consequently, he avoided (at least at first) folk song and symphony. He rejected Vaughan Williams' inspiration in the Tudor period and went for Henry Purcell. Still, like Vaughan Williams, he began to identify deeply with the English past, mainly through its literature, and to consider how to get his music to reach out to the community. Early consequences of this were Hymn to Saint Cecilia (1942), A Ceremony of Carols (1942), the Serenade (1943), Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), A Shepherd's Carol (1944), Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell (The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, 1945-47), and the opera Peter Grimes (1945). In these works, Britten has changed the emphasis of his music, increasing diatonicism and the importance of melody without getting rid of "difficult" dissonance, and searching for a new emotional warmth, without losing entirely his irony and satire. Britten also began on a series of "realizations" of earlier work, mainly by Purcell – including a wonderful Saul and the Witch at Endor (1947) and The Beggar's Opera (1949). These are less "editions" than "recompositions," and as much as Britten changed the originals, the originals helped him change his own music.
Grimes became a hit and vaulted Britten into the front rank of British composers. A string of operas followed: The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), The Little Sweep (1949), with parts for amateurs and children, Spring Symphony (1949), and the full-length Billy Budd (1951) for Covent Garden. No British composer since Purcell had written an opera with such international success.
Britten began to eclipse his contemporaries and to supplant Vaughan Williams as the Great English Composer. Indeed, the main critical fights in Britain at this time rose from the Vaughanians vs. the Sons of Ben. Silly as it is to think about know, if you stood in one camp, you were denied a pass into the other. Like most turf wars, they turned out largely beside the point as well as aesthetically and historically off-base. After all, Vaughan Williams in his own way was just as "internatonal" in his outlook as Britten, and he, like Britten, had forged his own brand of Modernism in works like the Symphony #4, the Concerto Grosso, and the Piano Concerto. True, Britten and Vaughan Williams were allergic to one another's music. Vaughan Williams thought Britten unnecessarily cruel to performers (although he immediately recognized the stature of Peter Grimes), and Britten regarded Vaughan Williams as "amateurish and 'pi,'" although he felt very keenly Vaughan Williams' central relevance to the British musical scene. At any rate, critic Hans Keller proclaimed Britten the greatest composer alive, despite the fact that Stravinsky was still around and still writing, and one began to see various critics awarding Britten the title of Greatest English Composer since Purcell, conveniently forgetting Elgar at the least. It says much for Britten that as a conductor and performer, he began to reinvestigate Britain's recent musical past, rescuing composers like Holst and Delius from neglect, and even leading performances of Elgar's Gerontius. However, Vaughan Williams remained conspicuously absent from Britten's repertoire.
Britten was sufficiently launched to inaugurate and head his own festival at Aldeburgh, which became one of the world's most important. Not only did it premiere several of Britten's own best works, but it attracted superstar performers from all over the world. Queen Elizabeth II's coronation led to the commission of another full-length opera, the still-underrated Gloriana, Britten's take on Tudor music (very different than that of Vaughan Williams, of course) and one of the great political operas of the century. A spate of glorious work continued through the early Sixties, which gave Britten the title he longed for: the British composer. Pieces during this period include Lachrymae for viola and piano (1951), The Turn of the Screw (1954), the Hardy cycle Winter Words (1954), Canticles II and III (1952, 1954), the marvelous ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), whose evocation of Balinese gamelan turned out to influence much of his later work, Noye's Fludde (1957), another "outreach" to amateurs, children, and professionals, the exuberant Cantata Academica (1959), and Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), one of the finest of all Shakespearean operas.
This remarkable run culminated in the composer's War Requiem (1962), a work which tore through the musical world and gave Britten his greatest success. It may very well be the most recent work to score with critics, professionals, and amateurs, and like Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, it did so without musical compromise. In fact, the War Requiem threw Britten's subsequent music somewhat into the shade, despite fabulous pieces. These include the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1963), three "church parables" (Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son; 1963, 1966, 1968), the final opera, Death in Venice (1973), and the cantata Phaedra (1975).
Although most of his output had long since entered the standard repertory, interest in his new work declined. The mantle of new up-and-comer now draped the shoulders of Michael Tippett. Britten's music was seen as "thin," rather than "clear" or "elegant." The earlier Vaughan Williams/Britten battle had returned with new players, and the results did not go Britten's way. Apparently, even the most sophisticated critics can't resist the crude game of King of the Mountain. Inevitably, the heat died down, and Britten's place in music seems secure.
Britten's last years were marked by severe heart problems, not entirely cured by surgery. In 1973, he suffered a stroke which crippled his right hand, and for a time, he felt unable to compose. He confined himself to what he called "chores" (revisions of early work, arrangements for full orchestra of chamber music, for example) and very contained works. In 1976, he became the first British composer to receive a peerage and became Lord Britten of Aldeburgh, an irony in the light of his anti-authoritarian philosophy. He became increasingly weak and ill and died in the arms of Peter Pears in December, 1976. ~ Steve Schwartz