Benjamin Britten was one of the twentieth century's great composers. He is particularly known for his operas, but also for choral works, and the many song cycles he wrote for his muse and partner, the tenor Peter Pears.
Born in Lowestoft in 1913, Britten grew up in a house that looked out across the North Sea that would inspire much of his music. It was an extremely musical household, and his mother especially encouraged his early attempts to compose. At 15 he began composition lessons with the composer Frank Bridge, who remained an influential mentor through Britten’s early career.
Saw Frank Bridge in his London house in afternoon. Had an absolutely wonderful lesson.
BRITTEN’S DIARY, THURSDAY 12 JANUARY 1928
Britten quickly enjoyed success with early published works including such enduring favourites as the Simple Symphony and A Boy Was Born. However, it was the 1945 opera Peter Grimes which made his name, and that of Pears, who sang the title role. Peter Grimes was seen as raising English opera to heights not seen since Henry Purcell 250 years earlier and sealed Britten’s international reputation. Smaller, chamber operas swiftly followed, including The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 and the altogether more light-hearted Albert Herring, produced the following year by the English Opera Group (EOG) that Britten co-founded.
While on an EOG tour of European festivals in 1947, Pears suggested that they should start a festival of their own in the Suffolk seaside town where Britten had just bought a house. The first Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts was held a year later. In 1967 the Queen opened Snape Maltings Concert Hall as a larger venue for the growing festival, which continues to flourish to this day under the auspices of Aldeburgh Music.
In June 1976 Britten was given a life peerage, the first musician to be honoured in this way. He took the title Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. However, by this time Britten was suffering from a heart condition that an earlier operation had not fully cured. He died at The Red House, in Pears’ arms, in the early hours of 4 December 1976, twelve days after his sixty-third birthday.
I want my music to be of use to people, to please them, to ‘enhance their lives.
BRITTEN ON RECEIVING THE FIRST ASPEN AWARD, 1964