Benjamin Britten

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Mstislaw Rostropowitsch and Benjamin Britten (right, 1964)

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten , OM CH (born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft , Suffolk , † December 4, 1976 in Aldeburgh , Suffolk) was a British composer , conductor and pianist .

life and work

Benjamin Britten's birthplace

Benjamin Britten was born as the fourth and youngest child of dentist Robert Victor and his wife Edith Rhoda Britten. At the age of five he received his first piano lessons from his mother. Britten wrote his first compositions in 1921. During his school days he was largely taught piano and viola by Frank Bridge , to whom he later dedicated his composition Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge . In 1930 he studied piano and composition at the Royal College of Music in London, which he left in 1933.

Britten, like the poet WH Auden, attended Gresham's School in Norfolk - but their acquaintance and friendship did not begin there, they attended the school one after the other. Rather, they met while Britten was working for the GPO Film Unit in 1935. Auden influenced him not only personally but also artistically. He set some of Auden's texts to music (e.g. Our Hunting Fathers , op. 8 and On this Island , op. 11).

Many of the tenor roles in his operas and many of the songs were intended for performance by his partner, the tenor Peter Pears , whom Britten had met in 1937. He wrote important chamber music works, chamber operas and the chamber music of his War Requiem for the Melos Ensemble .

In 1939 the declared pacifist Britten left Europe and went to the USA. In 1942, however, he returned to Great Britain - again together with Peter Pears. In the second instance, Britten was granted conscientious objection in the Second World War not only for the fighting troops, but in general.

Britten became widely known for his opera Peter Grimes , with which the Sadler's Wells Opera Company reopened their theater after the Second World War ( premiered June 7, 1945). In 1948 he wrote the cantata Saint Nicolas , which describes the life and work of Bishop Nikolaus von Myra . In December 1961, on the occasion of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral , which had been destroyed in World War II, he completed the War Requiem , which has since been counted among the most important choral works (first performance: May 30, 1962, Coventry ). Texts from the liturgy and poems by the poet Wilfred Owen, who died in 1918, were used .

His compositions include orchestral and chamber music, but above all vocal music (operas, songs, compositions for choir). His most important works include the serenade for tenor , horn and strings as well as the operas Peter Grimes and A Midsummer Night's Dream .

Britten was also an extraordinary conductor and pianist. In 1970 he conducted Shostakovich's 14th Symphony , which was performed outside Russia for the first time , a work that the composer had dedicated to him. As a pianist, he has often appeared as a song accompanist. Numerous recordings of his own and other works have been released since the 1950s. For several years now, the BBC has made live recordings with him available again from its archive.

In 1948, Britten founded a music festival in his home town of Aldeburgh , which still exists today. In 1967 a concert hall was opened in the event, exhibition and shopping center "Snape Maltings" in the village of Snape near Aldeburgh. The Aldeburgh Festival has taken place there annually since then.

Benjamin Britten's grave in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England

In addition to many other awards, Britten received the Order of Merit - as the third English composer after Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams . In 1957 he was accepted as an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters . In 1960 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In 1965 he was honored with the Finnish Wihuri Sibelius Prize and in 1968 with the Léonie Sonning Music Prize. In 1958 and 1970 he became a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. In 1976 he was accepted as a foreign member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts .

Britten also used the techniques of his modern contemporaries, but by and large Britten's music can be described as conservative. He was an admirer of Henry Purcell and reverted to a Purcell theme in one of his most famous works, the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra .

On July 2, 1976, Britten was raised to a Life Peer as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in The County of Suffolk . He died a few months later on December 4, 1976 at his home in Aldeburgh and was buried in the local cemetery.


Since December 8, 1977, the Bay of Britten Inlet and the Britten Ice Shelf in Antarctica have been named after him. The asteroid (4079) Britten , discovered on February 15, 1983, was also named after him in 1990.


Benjamin Britten Memorial Window by John Piper in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh

Orchestral works

  • Elegy for Strings (1928)
  • Two Portraits for string orchestra (1928–30)
  • Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra op.1 (1932)
  • Simple Symphony for string orchestra op.4 (1934)
  • Soirées Musicales op.9 after Gioachino Rossini (1936)
  • Mont Juic op.12 , together with Lennox Berkeley (1937)
  • Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra op.10 (1937)
  • Concerto for piano and orchestra op.13 (1938, revised 1945)
  • Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor, op.15 (1939, revised 1958)
  • Young Apollo for piano and string orchestra op.16 (1939)
  • Sinfonia da Requiem for orchestra op.20 (1940)
  • Diversions for piano (left hand) and orchestra op.21 (1940, revised 1954)
  • Matinées Musicales op.24 after Gioachino Rossini (1941)
  • Prelude and Fugue for 18 strings op.29 (1943)
  • Four Sea Interludes op.33a and Passacaglia op.33b from Peter Grimes for orchestra (1945)
  • The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra op.34 (1946) on a theme by Henry Purcell
  • Symphonic Suite from Gloriana op.53a (1954)
  • The Prince of the Pagodas op.57 (Ballet, 1956)
  • Cello Symphony op.68 (1963)
  • Suite on English folk songs A Time There Was for chamber orchestra op.90 (1966/1974)
  • Phaedra for mezzo-soprano, string orchestra, percussion, cello and harpsichord op.93 (Robert Lowell after Racines Phèdre , 1975)
  • Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland for viola and string orchestra op.48a (1974)

Choral works with orchestra

  • The Company of Heaven for soloists, choir and orchestra (1937)
  • The World of the Spirit for soloists, choir and orchestra (1938)
  • Ballad of Heroes for tenor, soprano and mixed choir op.14 (1939), dedicated to the interbrigadists
  • Saint Nicolas for tenor, children's choir, mixed choir, string orchestra, piano and percussion op.42 (1948)
  • Spring Symphony for soprano, alto, tenor, mixed choir and boys' choir op.44 (1949), with texts by Wystan Hugh Auden, William Blake and John Milton .
  • Cantata academica . Carmen Basiliense for four soloists and mixed choir op.62 (1959)
  • War Requiem for soprano, tenor, bass, mixed choir, boys' choir, orchestra and organ op.66 (1961)
  • Psalm 150 for two-part children's choir op.67 (1962)
  • Cantata misericordium for soloists, small choir, string quartet, string orchestra, piano, harp and kettledrum op.69 (1963)
  • Children's Crusade , Ballade for children's voices and orchestra op.82 (1968)
  • Welcome Ode for youth choir and youth orchestra op.95 (1976/77)
  • Praise we great men for soloists, choir and orchestra (Edith Sitwell) (1976, completed by Colin Matthews 1985)

Choral works, unaccompanied or with piano, organ or harp

  • A Hymn to the Virgin (Anon.) For mixed choir (1930, rev. 1934)
  • The King's Birthday for choir (1931)
  • A Boy was Born , Variations for mixed choir and boys' choir op.3 (1933)
  • Te Deum for 2 pieces, choir and organ / strings / piano (1934)
  • Friday Afternoons for children's choir and piano op.7 (1935)
  • AMDG (Gerard Manley Hopkins) for mixed choir, originally op.17 (1939)
  • Hymn to St. Cecilia , text by WH Auden for mixed choir op.27 (1942)
  • A Ceremony of Carols for boys' choir and harp op.28 (1942)
  • Rejoice in the Lamb , for 4 soloists, mixed choir and organ op.30 (1943)
  • Festival Te Deum , for mixed choir and organ op.32 (1944)
  • A Wedding Anthem (Amo ergo sum) , text by Ronald Duncan, for soprano, tenor, mixed choir and organ op.46 (1949)
  • Five Flower Songs , for mixed choir op.47 (1950)
  • Hymn to St. Peter , for mixed choir and organ op.56a (1955)
  • Antiphon for mixed choir and organ op.56b (1956)
  • Missa brevis in D major for boys' choir and organ op.63 (1959)
  • Voices for Today , for mixed choir and organ ad lib. op. 75 (1965)
  • The Golden Vanity , text by Colin Graham, for boys' choir and piano op.78 (1966)
  • Sacred and Profane , for mixed choir op.91 (1975)

Solo vocal music

  • Quatre Chansons françaises ( V. Hugo / P. Verlaine ) for high voice (1928)
  • Our Hunting Fathers , text by WH Auden , op.8 (1936)
  • On this Island , text by WH Auden, op.11 (1937)
  • Les Illuminations for high voice and string orchestra on texts by Rimbaud , op.18 (1939)
  • Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo , op. 22 (1940) for tenor and piano
  • Serenade for tenor, horn and strings , op.31, song cycle based on texts by English poets (1943)
  • The Holy Sonnets of John Donne , op.35 (1945)
  • Winter Words , song cycle based on texts by Thomas Hardy , op.52 (1953)
  • Nocturne , op. 60 (1958)
  • Six Hölderlin fragments , op.61 (1958) for tenor and piano
  • Songs and Proverbs of William Blake , op.75 (1965) for baritone and piano
  • Who are these Children , song cycle based on texts by W. Soutar, op. 84 (1969) for tenor and harp (or piano)
  • Evening, Morning, Night , three songs from This way to the tomb for tenor and harp (or piano)
  • Fish in the Unruffled Lakes
  • The Birds
  • Two ballads
  • Canticle I op. 40, for tenor and piano
  • Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, op. 51, for alto, tenor and piano
  • Canticle III: Still falls the Rain, op.55, for tenor, horn and piano
  • Songs from the Chinese op.58, song cycle for high voice and guitar (1957), premiered in 1958
  • Canticle IV: The journey of the magi, op.86 , for alto, tenor, baritone and piano
  • Canticle V: The death of Saint Narcissus op.89 for tenor and harp
  • Four Burns Songs op.92
  • The Poet's Echo, op. 76, six songs after Pushkin
  • Tit for Tat, five poems based on Walter de la Mare for medium voice and piano


Church Parables

  • Curlew River. A parable for church performance ( River of the Seagulls or The Curlew River ) op. 71. Libretto: William Charles Franklin Plomer (based on the play Sumidagawa by Juro Motomasa ). Premiere June 13, 1964 Orford, Suffolk (Parish Church)
  • The Burning Fiery Furnace ( The Young Men in the Fiery Furnace or The Trial by Fire ) op. 77. Ballade (Church parable). Libretto: William Plomer. Premiere June 9, 1966 Orford, Suffolk (Parish Church)
  • The Prodigal Son ( The Prodigal Son ), Op. 81. Church parabola. Libretto: William Plomer. Premiere June 10, 1968 Orford, Suffolk (Parish Church)

Chamber music and solo works

  • Lachrymae , Reflections on a song of Dowland, op.48 for viola and piano (1950)
  • Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe solo, op.49 (1951)
  • Fanfare for St Edmundsbury (1959), short antiphonic and polytonal piece for three trumpets
  • Sonata for cello and piano in C major op.65, 1961
  • Nocturnal after John Dowland for Guitar. Op. 70 (1963, first performed on June 12, 1964 by Julian Bream at the Aldeburgh Festival ; duration: about 14 minutes), Variations on Come Heavy Sleep (1597) for guitar, dedicated to Julian Bream
  • Cello Suites No. 1 in G major (op.72; 1964), No. 2 in D major (op.80; 1967) and No. 3 (op.87; 1971)
  • Three string quartets, opp. 25, 36, 94; Three Divertimenti for String Quartet , WP: 1936

Works without an opus number (mostly early works)

  • Music for the documentary Night Mail (1936), text by WH Auden
  • Russian Funeral (1936) for brass (4 horns ad lib., 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba) and percussion
  • The Rescue of Penelope
  • The world of the spirit

Performance practice

As General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin , Donald Runnicles has been developing a cycle of performances with works by the composer since 2013 . In addition to new productions by Peter Grimes (director: David Alden), Billy Budd (director: David Alden) and The Rape of Lucretia (director: Fiona Shaw), Death in Venice (director: Graham Vick) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (director : Ted Huffman) for attention.


  • Peter Evans: The Music of Benjamin Britten . Oxford 1996.
  • Alessandro Macchia, Benjamin Britten , L'Epos, Palermo 2013 ISBN 978-88-8302-384-2
  • Mervyn Cooke (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK 1998, ISBN 0-521-57476-5 .
  • Humphrey Carpenter : Benjamin Britten. A biography . London 1992.
  • Meinhard Saremba: Elgar, Britten & Co. - A history of British music in twelve portraits . Zurich / St. Gallen 1994, ISBN 3-7265-6029-7 .
  • John Bridcut: Britten's Children . London 2006.
  • Norbert Abels : Benjamin Britten . Boosey & Hawkes, Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-7931-4047-4 .
  • Benjamin Britten: We're doing an opera and the children's opera “The Little Chimney Sweep” . Ullstein, 1959.
  • Paul Kildea: Benjamin Britten: a life in the twentieth century , London: Allen Lane, 2013, ISBN 978-1-8461-4232-1
  • Matthias Kremin: "Happy were he ...". Benjamin Britten's works for guitar and voice, an overview of the composer's 75th birthday. In: Guitar & Laute , Volume 10, Issue 6, 1988, pp. 49-56.
  • Powell, Neil: Britten: A Life for Music . Hutchinson, London 2013, ISBN 0-09-193123-1 .
  • Benjamin Britten / Ed. By Ulrich Tadday. (Music Concepts New Series; 170) edition text + kritik, Munich 2015, ISBN 978-3-86916-422-9 ; review
  • Eric Wather White: Benjamin Britten, His Life and Operas. London 1983.
  • About Britten performances by the Dresden Kreuzchor, in: Matthias Herrmann (Ed.): Dresdner Kreuzchor and contemporary choral music. World premieres between Richter and Kreile, Marburg 2017, pp. 87–88, 112–113, 129, 138, 221–223, 315, 318, 320, 328 (Schriften des Dresdner Kreuzchor, Vol. 2). ISBN 978-3-8288-3906-9

Web links

Commons : Benjamin Britten  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Entry in Classical Archives
  2. ^ Powell
  3. Joined the Benjamin Britten Foundation
  4. ^ William Mann: Shostakovich special . In: The Times , June 15, 1970, p. 10.
  5. ^ Honorary Members: Benjamin Britten. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed March 7, 2019 .
  6. Entry in the AdK member list
  7. Britten Ice Shelf in the Geographic Names Information System of the United States Geological Survey
  8. Minor Planet Circ. 16592
  9. Britten's homage to international brigades in this year's Proms
  10. No. 20 in The First Book of Songs or Ayres of Four Part.
  11. OCLC 339555
  12. ^ Julian Bream: Benjamin Britten, Nocturnal after John Dowland for Guitar Op. 70. Faber, London 1965.
  13. Hannes Fricke: Myth guitar: history, interpreters, great hours. Reclam, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-15-020279-1 , p. 201 f.
  14. A new total work of art every evening . January 17, 2020. Accessed February 4, 2020.
  15. Jürgen Schaarwächter on info-netz-musik on September 27, 2015; accessed on October 14, 2015