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  • Graham Abbott

Benjamin Britten: An Overview

The two radio programs on which the following article is based went to air in November 2013 to mark the centenary of Britten's birth. It is largely based on the Grove article on the composer and gives a very simple, pared-back overview of this great (and I mean great) composer's life.


Since that time I have read Paul Kildea's superlative biography, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, which was also produced to mark the composer's centenary. Anyone wanting the closest we have to a definitive biography of Britten - respectful, detailed, yet shorn of hagiography - is unhesitatingly directed to this book.


.....


I was once talking to a group of music lovers who were participating in an adult education course I was teaching. At one point I mentioned the name Benjamin Britten and a number of those within earshot turned up their noses. I was honestly taken aback at this and asked why they didn’t like the music of Britten. The replies were vague, quite unspecific. No actual works were mentioned, nor was any particular trait of Britten’s style singled out for censure. Even naming some of Britten’s most audience-friendly works: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Saint Nicolas, even Noye’s Fludde was to no avail. Britten to these people was “difficult”.


I had always thought that Britten was a pretty accessible composer, one whose music spoke a language more easily understood than say that of Schoenberg or Messiaen, not to mention Boulez or Stockhausen. To my mind an understanding of Britten's music is best achieved by an understanding of the man himself; no easy task. Of course I have to declare my interest here: I love Britten’s music with a passion.


Edward Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, on the Suffolk coast of England, on November 22, 1913. His mother felt that the fact that her youngest child was born on St Cecilia’s Day (St Cecilia being the patron saint of musicians) was a good omen. She longed for him to become “the fourth B” (the “three B’s” being Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) and his childhood displayed a near-prodigious gift for music. He played the piano and later the viola, and by the age of 14 had written 100 pieces of music.


Britten's borthplace in Lowestoft

While still in his teens, Britten began formal composition lessons with Frank Bridge, a highly-respected composer, violist and conductor who, according to Britten, instilled in his young student two cardinal principles. The first was “that you should find yourself and be true to what you found”. The second was his “scrupulous attention to good technique”. Britten was in fact his only composition pupil. A String Quartet in F from 1928 (written in a little under week when Britten was 14) was among the first works written during his studies with Bridge. Interestingly, the initial melody is stated by the viola - the instrument both Bridge and Britten played. [listen]


Frank Bridge (1921)

At the start of the 1930s, upon leaving school, Britten won a scholarship to go to London and study at the Royal College of Music. He found the conservative attitudes of the institution claustrophobic, and developed very clear likes and dislikes as his exposure to music of all sorts increased. He adored Stravinsky and Mahler, and was bowled over by some early works of William Walton. On the negative side he detested the English “pastoral school”, symbolised by the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and said he “found himself incapable of enjoying Elgar for more than two minutes”. The College library at the time didn’t possess a score of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Britten’s request that one be added to the collection caused severe disquiet in the institution. His admiration for Schoenberg and his followers is evident in one of the most important works of this period, his Sinfonietta, Op. 1. It stands in stark contrast to most of the works being produced in England at the time and received its first performance in January 1933. Here’s the first movement. [listen]


Upon his graduation from the Royal College in December 1932, Britten received a travel grant. He initially planned to go to Vienna and study with Alban Berg, the student of Arnold Schoenberg and composer of Wozzeck and Lulu. The powers that be at the college, however, persuaded Britten’s parents that Berg was somehow “immoral” and so the plan to study with Berg was thwarted. The disappointment at this turn of events must have been partly ameliorated by a radio premiere of his choral variations A Boy Was Born. This challenging and forward-looking work won him new admirers, as did a performance of his Phantasy oboe quartet in Florence in March 1934. Here is part of A Boy Was Born in which we hear important elements of Britten’s later choral style, even though at this stage he was still only 19. It’s a challenging work for choirs who would tackle it, as it applies instrumental techniques to voices. In this variation, for example, some parts take on accompaniment patterns against melodies in other parts. While common in instrumental music, this is not so common in unaccompanied choral music. [listen]


Benjamin Britten

From 1935 Britten was employed to write music for films produced by the GPO Film Unit. Film composition is excellent training for a composer. The music must be tailored perfectly to the moment, durations must be precise, and raw material used effectively and efficiently. In all Britten provided scores for about 30 films produced by the GPO and the British Commercial Gas Association. Some of the titles betray distinctly down-to-earth subjects, such as The Story of the Central Telegraph Office, Men Behind the Meters, The Savings Bank, Sorting Office and Night Mail.


Here is a remastered version of Night Mail, in which Britten's music accompanies a text by WH Auden. [listen]


Being in London, away from his family and birthplace, Britten was free to explore his own political views, develop a wider circle of friends, and see and hear more of the world’s art, people and opinions. Britten’s politics were decidedly-left wing, and he seemed to take delight in shocking his mother by arguing with her about communism, and refusing to attend communion with her as part of his new rebellious stance. His circle of friends included the poet WH Auden, with whom Britten collaborated on a number of projects. Auden was also one of a number of openly gay artists Britten met at the time, thus enabling him to come to some sort of acceptance of his own homosexuality. In this way the essential nature of Britten’s psyche came to the surface; the indelible marks which mark the man and mark the music.


WH Auden

Like the work of his contemporary (and later friend) Dmitri Shostakovich, there are two ways to approach Britten’s music. One is to be dazzled by the veneer of respectability it goes to such pains to present: beauty, an apparent maintenance of all that is good and right and proper, a love of community. The other is to see not very far below the surface perhaps a truer Britten, summarised in 1963 by Peter Pears in the pithy and perfectly accurate sentence: We are after all queer & left & conshies which is enough to put us, or make us put ourselves, outside the pale, apart from being artists as well. ”Queer and left and conshie” rather effectively, if bluntly, summarises what I see as Britten’s approach to life and to his art. Queer is obvious. Britten was never public about his homosexuality even though it was common knowledge. His sexuality was never talked about openly, and those who did were soon cut off from his “circle”. This fed into, or maybe caused, feelings of isolation, guilt and anger which surface sometimes magnificently in his music. It's important to remember that homosexual acts of any kind were illegal for men in the UK until 1967, only nine years before Britten's death.


“Conshie” is a slang abbreviation for “conscientious objector”, a person who refuses to fight in wartime because it conflicts with their personal beliefs. Britten’s pacificsm was well-known and deeply-held (and was shared by Pears), and again, his hatred of war, of what he saw as nations and institutions subverting the rights of the individual in the name of political expediency, was a driving force in much of his music. The corollary here was his celebration of innocence, marked in much of his music by the use of boys’ voices.


And being “left” in the political spectrum meant Britten’s music often toed lines which contradicted the establishment, raised eyebrows, and forced people to think outside their comfort zones. This in turn made Britten a controversial figure on many occasions, one of which was the premiere of his next major work, Our Hunting Fathers, written in 1936. In this song cycle for high voice and orchestra, Auden provided a text (comprising poetry by himself and others) which explores the relationship between humans and animals. The time-honoured sport of fox hunting is particularly attacked, and there are also comments which relate to the then-current international political situation. [listen]


The first performance of Our Hunting Fathers was conducted by Britten himself. Throughout his career he was active as a conductor, and not only of his own works. There exists a remarkable legacy of recordings of a large proportion of Britten’s works conducted by the composer, in many cases with the original performers, which is a magnificent resource to anyone wishing to conduct his works today.


In January of the following year, 1937, Britten’s mother died. She had been more than a guiding force to him; she had been a strongly restraining force. As a result, Britten’s life underwent major changes after her death. On 6 March he met the English tenor Peter Pears and immediately struck up a friendship with the singer who was three years his senior. Within a year they were flatting together in London. They weren’t lovers at this stage; Britten was exploring liaisons of this nature with a number different men at this point in his life.


In August of the same year - at the Salzburg Festival no less - Britten had a major triumph with the first performance of a work that was a magnificent tribute to his teacher: the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra. The work’s skill in manipulating a wide range of styles and forms within a coherent whole marked it out as the creation of a major new talent. [listen]


The clouds of war, as they say, gathered over Europe in the late 30s, which led Britten and Pears, like so many other people, to consider living in the United States. Britten’s Piano Concerto was premiered at the Proms in London 1938 (with Britten himself as the soloist) and in April the following year he and Pears boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic. Auden had already gone, as had many others of the “queer, left and conshie” circle.


In addition to the rise of European fascism, Britten was felt that the frantic pace of his career to date had exhausted him and he needed time out in a new environment. He was also displaying a rather thin-skinned sensitivity to some hostile reviews his music had received, and on top of all this felt the need to extricate himself from the lives of some of the men with whom he had become emotionally entangled. Pears and Britten started their visit in Canada and then visited Aaron Copland in New York. It was certainly around this time, early in the North American visit, that the two Englishmen consummated their emotional commitment to each other which would, as it transpired, last until Britten’s death 37 years later.


Britten and Pears

In America Britten composed some wonderful music, starting with Young Apollo in 1939 [listen]. Then came Les Illuminations, a song cycle for high voice and string orchestra. It was probably Auden, who exposed Britten to much literature he might not otherwise have read, who steered Britten towards the poetry of Rimbaud, which is set so powerfully in the original French in this work. Britten's quicksilver inventiveness seemed to reach a new high here. It's also another step on the way to his later sensitivity to text and drama which is evident in the operas. [listen]


The Violin Concerto was premiered in New York in 1940, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, one of the conductors who championed Britten early in his career. The Violin Concerto strikes me as a work of great beauty and mysticism, haunted by a tragic air. Like much of Britten’s music, it makes me feel that there’s so much more going on here than meets the ear, and this sense of curiosity is endearing rather than infuriating. Britten clearly valued the work, returning to it no less than three times in future years to revise it. [listen]


The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, for tenor voice and piano, also date from this period. They were dedicated to Pears and were the first works Britten specifically wrote for him. This is just one of the many wonderful additions to the tenor repertoire which should make musical posterity grateful for Britten’s and Pears’ relationship. [listen]


The major orchestral work of the American period came about as a result of a commission from the Japanese government. This was to be part of the celebrations marking the 2,600th anniversary of the Japanese empire; other composers asked to contribute included Richard Strauss. Britten caused great offence, it seems, by providing a work which, far from being jubilant, is dark, tragic and mournful. In fairness to Britten, recent research has indicated that he may have been misled by the diplomatic personnel who acted as intermediaries between him and the Japanese government. Britten produced the Sinfonia da Requiem, a massively powerful orchestral work where each of the three movements is based on words from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. He also dedicated the work to the memory of his parents. The Japanese were not amused, and the work was rejected. This was in 1940, by the way. The war was raging in Europe, but Japan had not yet attacked Pearl Harbour and the United States had not yet entered the war. Barbirolli conducted the premiere in New York in March 1941. It's undoubtedly one of my favourite Britten works, which I have been lucky enough to conduct on a couple of occasions. [listen]


The last major work written in the United States was an operetta called Paul Bunyan. Britten made many mistakes in setting this abstruse text of Auden's, but he learned from them. When it failed he withdrew the piece until he decided to look at it again and revise it shortly before his death. It’s a problematic work, and it gives no indication at all that Britten would within a few years write the most important opera in the English language for more than two centuries. In April 1942, in the midst of the war, he and Pears arrived back in England. During the sea voyage he composed two of his best-loved choral works, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia for unaccompanied choir, and A Ceremony of Carols for boys’ voices and harp. Both show Britten’s superb handling of voices, his wit and his willingness to forge paths which were new. The celebration of music and the patron saint of musicians in the Hymn (a saint who was martyred) is perfectly balanced with the celebration of innocence - as always typified by boys’ voices in Britten - in the Carols. [listen]


Britten and Pears were not universally received with open arms on their return to England. Many criticised their absence during the Blitz, their pacifism, and their conscientious objection. Both faced a tribunal and were called up for non-combatant duties, a ruling which was overturned on appeal. What counted in their favour with the authorities was the fact that they had been giving recitals throughout the country; remember Britten was an first-rank pianist and frequently accompanied Pears in concerts in a wide range of music. (Gerald Moore later famously called Britten "the greatest accompanist in the world".) Britten's and Pears's release from service duties meant they could focus on their musical careers, something doubtless viewed with jealousy by many musicians whose careers were interrupted by their war service.


Benjamin Britten

Some of Britten’s best-known music dates from the period following his return to England. The Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra all come from the period around Peter Grimes, of which more in a moment. Rejoice in the Lamb, a small-scale cantata for choir and organ, sets part of a poem by the 18th century poet and philosopher Christopher Smart, who was incarcerated in an lunatic asylum and an outcast from society. The desperation of a man scorned had resonances for Britten, of course, and it was a chilling precursor to the title figure of the opera he was about to bring to the stage. [listen]


Many writers on Britten go to great lengths to emphasise his dislike of Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had held the unofficial position of “national composer” in the eyes of the British musical world for decades. Britten’s early diaries make this dislike more than clear with their regular unfavourable references to Vaughan Williams's music. There seems to have been a desire on Britten's part to replace Vaughan Williams in the role of national composer (Vaughan Williams didn’t die until 1958), and on his return to England that certainly seems to have been one of the driving forces behind Britten’s desire to write an opera: opera was the one field in which Vaughan Williams had not had notable success.


The story of the gestation of Britten’s first opera, Peter Grimes, is a long one, but when it was premiered at Sadler’s Wells in June 1945 (a month after the end of the war in Europe and two months before the Japanese surrender) it signalled a new age in English music. Britten was really the first English composer since Purcell in the late 17th century (or maybe Arne in the 18th) to write an opera in English which was not only good musically, but also dramatically, and which spoke to audiences in a way which cultivated thought as much as it entertained. To me it’s ironic that a man who was personally so private was at the same time able to create large-scale public works like operas which are of the highest quality. And Britten’s operas work internationally, too, unlike those of Holst and Vaughan Williams, which seem to be so English that they are outside the comprehension of non-English audiences.


Peter Grimes was a popular and critical success but the rehearsal period was tough. Many members of the Sadler’s Wells company disliked the work, its composer, and the singer of title role, who was Peter Pears, of course. All that was swept away by the complete triumph of the opening night, a night which established Britten as the pre-eminent English opera composer with his first major opera. [listen]


One of the most important experiences of Britten's life - one about which he hardly ever spoke - took place in late 1945 when accompanied violinist Yehudi Menuhin on a tour to Germany, to play concerts for survivors of the Nazi death camps. The experience led to the creation of one his most powerful works, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, another set of songs for tenor and piano. The metaphysical poet's visions of hell, death and the fear of the judgement of God echoed the composer's experiences of seeing his pacifism, in his eyes, justified. The horror could only be expressed in music setting visionary, terrifying poetry, and Donne cycle is one of Britten's most powerful works, occupying a landscape almost unique in his output. [listen]


Britten looked in a different direction for his next opera. Grimes is written on a large scale: a big cast, chorus, large orchestra, and major set requirements. The next was completely different in its physical needs - a small cast and a handful of instruments - but had a similar theme to its large-scale precursor, namely the plight of one person against many. His recent experiences in Germany clearly fed into this as well. The new opera was The Rape of Lucretia, first performed at Glyndeborne in 1946, a moving and tragic work which deserves to be performed more often. [listen]


After The Rape of Lucretia Britten’s next opera was the delightful comedy Albert Herring. [listen] The first Aldeburgh Festival - an idea of Pears’ - was held in 1948 and from that time onwards Britten had his own world, a place where he could be safe, perform the music he wanted to (not just his own) and to which he could invite his friends and those performers he admired.


From the late 1940s Britten’s output was prodigious and inspired, with almost every work a brilliant and inventive gem. He occasionally used pre-existing works as the basis of new ones, like his realisations of Purcell songs, or his reworking of The Beggar’s Opera. The first major work of the 50s was Billy Budd, a dark, brooding masterwork of an opera which again explores the fate of one against the world, and which contains sinister hints of a destructively suppressed homosexuality. Written for the 1951 Festival of Britain and premiered at Covent Garden, the work rocked the musical establishment of which Britten was rapidly becoming a part, and he somehow managed to maintain the status of an outsider while at the same time courting the highest levels of British aristocracy.


Billy Budd was originally in four acts but in 1961 Britten revised it into a two-act version, the version usually performed today. It is one of the 20th century's greatest works of musical theatre, capable of leaving an audience shattered by its dilemmas, its passions, its conflicts and its injustices. [listen]


Britten, Pears and Leonard Bernstein (in a photo taken by Stanley Kubrick)

Britten's pacifism, homosexuality and left-leaning politics - not to mention his classification as a conscientious objector during the war - made him a controversial figure in the eyes of many. As an opera composer he made it clear that he favoured stories of a misunderstood individual against the world, something no doubt inspired by his own position in life. Billy Budd is a perfect example of this.


By the early 1950s, though, this so-called outsider was becoming very much a part of the establishment, a tricky balancing act for someone so convinced of his convictions. Billy Budd, with its all-male cast and subtle hints of homosexual lust, raised eyebrows to say the least. But it was in 1953, the year of Elizabeth II's coronation, that Britten experienced the acceptance and rejection of the establishment in close succession.


On the positive side, he was created a Companion of Honour in 1953, a royal honour which he accepted (unlike the much talked about knighthood, which he rejected). And he was given the commission to write the coronation opera. The negative reaction to the piece, though, stung the composer deeply.


Gloriana, the coronation opera, was not the work most people expected. Britten's ingenuity knew no bounds, and it must be said, his bravery was pretty amazing as well. Gloriana is a warts-and-all portrait of the ageing Elizabeth I, one which didn’t go down too well on opening night. The opera was regarded as a failure for a very long time, but in recent years, given the passage of time which has aided its reassessment, Gloriana is now seen as a work which can stand alongside Britten’s other works for the stage. But Gloriana was typically “left” of centre, especially when we remember this was 1953 and a coronation opera: even showing the monarch with foibles and failings - as this opera does - was simply unexpected by the establishment, although the young Queen herself had seen the opera in a private performance before the premiere and confessed herself “delighted and flattered”. [listen]


It seemed that the disaster which attended the premiere of Gloriana led Britten into a period of writing bleak and disturbing works. Before writing his next opera Britten created a song cycle for Pears and himself, setting texts by Thomas Hardy called Winter Words. Nostalgia, cold, death... Winter Words is possibly Britten’s finest work for voice and piano, with a new-found sparseness of texture and economy of means. [listen]


Benjamin Britten

Based on Henry James, The Turn of the Screw was Britten’s next opera, one of his greatest achievements. The ingeniously clever musical devices, quite apart from the chilling, ambiguous and deeply disturbing supernatural story of evil destroying innocence, make The Turn of the Screw a masterpiece of the first order. [listen]


One of Britten’s great innovations as a composer was his ability to write works which involved amateurs and children with professional performers. The wonderful Saint Nicolas of 1948 set the benchmark [listen], requiring a string orchestra which could be largely made up of amateur players if it had professional section leaders, and while the first percussion part requires a professional player, the second percussion part is delightfully marked as being able to be played by “as many talented and/or enthusiastic amateurs as possible”. (As an enthusiastic percussionist I played the second percussion part in a performance many years ago and it was so much fun.) The choir part can be sung by a proficient amateur choir, and even the audience gets to be involved in the singing of two hymns.


Ten years later, in 1958, came the successor to Saint Nicolas, the dramatic and ingenious Noye’s Fludde, based on one of the medieval Chester miracle plays. Large groups of child singers and actors mix with adults, and the orchestra has parts for amateurs and professionals; even beginner string players have something to do. There are recorders, bugles, handbells, and the audience gets to sing as well. Noye’s Fludde is a stunning tour-de-force of compositional ingenuity and commitment to a sense of community. [listen]


Pears and Britten

In 1960 came Britten’s opera on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Right before he wrote this opera, which focuses on night, darkness and dreams, he produced the Nocturne for tenor, seven “obligato” solo instruments and strings. This work dates from the latter half of 1958 and it sets poems by a number of different poets, all of which in some way deal with night and dreams. [listen]


The Shakespeare opera, with its magnificently shortened and rearranged text of the play, deals with dreams, night and ambiguity on a number of different levels. The role of Oberon was written for the English countertenor Alfred Deller, and the use of boys as the fairies helped create an other-worldly sound. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Britten's best-loved operas, and rightly so. It's magical in every sense of the word. [listen]


The years 1961-62 for Britten were dominated by the composition of the War Requiem. This was commissioned to mark the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral, an event of national significance. The old cathedral had been bombed by the Luftwaffe during the second world war and the new building, physically linked to the remains of the old, symbolised the spirit of moving on but never forgetting. The War Requiem is one of Britten’s greatest achievements, and from this point onwards it’s probably fair to say that Britten was indeed the national British composer he aspired to be. This was not something universally accepted by those who opposed him - and many did still oppose him - and the War Requiem was not universally admired. But it did provide a platform for Britten to voice his own deeply-held abhorrence of war, and in particular the role of the established church in supporting war. As he himself said, "some of my right-wing friends loathed it" and that's still the case with many people today. I've heard it many times, and as a schoolboy attended the first Sydney performance. I've conducted it once and studied it inside out. It's one of the greatest things ever. [listen]


Coventry Cathedral

In 1963 Britten returned to a genre he had not worked in since The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in 1946, namely a purely orchestral work. The Symphony for Cello and Orchestra was written for the famous Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Britten had written a cello sonata in 1961 [listen], and for whom he would write three suites for solo cello over the next few years [listen]. The Cello Symphony is a real symphony, and not a concerto, despite its prominent solo cello part. It's often dark, mysterious and bleak, but it's also magnificent. [listen]


Britten with Mstislav Rostropovich

Another of Britten’s innovations which came to the fore in the 1960s was his development of the “church parable”. Initially inspired by his encounter with theatre in Japan, the three church parables are small-scale theatrical works - chamber operas on an even smaller scale than his regular chamber operas - designed to be performed by a very small group of instruments and voices without conductor. The first of these, Curlew River, is based on the Japanese Sumidagawa epic but given a Christian twist. The central figure of the mad woman was a role designed for Pears to sing dressed as a woman, in the tradition of where both male and female roles are played by men. [listen]


The second parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace, takes its story from the Old Testament book of Daniel but gives it a similar treatment to the earlier work. [listen]


The third parable, a New Testament sequel called The Prodigal Son, is rarely-heard today, but it is one Britten’s most revealing compositions. The theme of authority, so prominent in many of his works (such as Billy Budd) is here treated sympathetically rather than with fear and loathing, perhaps signifying some psychological development in this area on Britten’s part. This is especially true when one sees that Britten identifies himself with the wayward son, a fact made clear by the use of the viola (the instrument Britten himself played as a young man) with the title character. [listen]


The 1970s saw Britten embark on two more large-scale operas, the first, Owen Wingrave, being designed for television. The second was Death in Venice. Both operas have very strong homoerotic threads, depending on how they are read, but with these two works we see the recurrent themes of Britten’s “queer and left and conshie” philosophy as strongly as ever.


Owen Wingrave is based on a short story by Henry James, whose writings inspired The Turn of the Screw. Britten had been long attracted to the story and for obvious reasons. Here is a man who stands against his family's military tradition, embracing pacifism and refusing to conform. He dies after agreeing to sleep in a room supposedly haunted by the ghosts of his ancestors, a family tragedy viewed from different perspectives by different people. [listen]

[listen]


Peter Pears as The General in Owen Wingrave

Death in Venice was premiered in June 1973. Based on the Thomas Mann novella about the German novelist who spends time in Venice during a plague, the opera comes perhaps as close as Britten ever did to having an openly homosexual character on the stage. Aschenbach muses on the attractions and liabilities of Apollnian and Dionysian love, and becomes obsessed with the beauty of a young boy. The opera is also a hymn of praise to the city of Venice itself, a city Britten loved. The Turn of the Screw was premiered in Venice in 1954, and despite his frailty he visited the city the year before his death. The watery city itself infuses the entire opera, with its equal measure of beauty and decay, of death within life, and above all, of unanswered questions. [listen]


After finishing Death in Venice, and two months before the premiere, Britten went into hospital, and in May of 1973 he underwent surgery to replace a failing heart valve. He suffered a stroke during the operation but he survived, albeit with his right hand adversely affected, and he continued to have difficulties with his heart. For the next three years he became increasingly unwell as his heart condition worsened, but he managed in this time to compose some extraordinary final works, among them the Suite on English Folk Tunes, (another of my very special Britten works, which I've conducted many times) [listen], a dramatic cantata for Janet Baker called Phaedra [listen], and the third string quartet [listen]. He took leave of his friends on his 63rd birthday in November 1976, and during the night of the 3rd-4th December he died in Peter Pears’ arms.


This all-too-brief summary of Benjamin Britten’s life and work omits so much. Since the start of the 21st century the musical world has started to healthily reassess the genius that was Benjamin Britten without being fazed by his sexuality or his politics, while at the same time understanding how important these aspects of his life are to his art. The 2013 centenary of his birth led to a widespread and heartfelt appreciation of the man's genius, something which has made this long-term Britten devotee immensely grateful.


There were other modernists of English music who like Britten rejected the English pastoral school. Most notable in this respect is Michael Tippett; William Walton is another. But Britten achieved something, particularly in his operas, which in my opinion Tippett and Walton come close to achieving but never quite managed to. Britten spanned the abyss between the creative artist and the real world, not now and then but as a matter of course. He managed to balance political radicalism with social interaction. He made people think but never sought to confront for its own sake. If Stravinsky was music’s Picasso, then Britten was sometimes music’s Magritte, at others its Frank Lloyd Wright. Ultimately Britten stands the test of true art - he always has something new to say.


I'll end here with part of Britten's last choral work, Sacred and Profane. Britten may not have been a conventional Christian, but he never failed to set sacred texts with dramatic and heartfelt power. This is just one of them, an acceptance, if you will, of a life ended far too soon. [listen]



This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2013.

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