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Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh

britten’s music opera festival

Britten, (Edward) Benjamin, Lord Britten of Aldeburgh, outstanding English composer; b. Lowestoft, Suffolk, Nov. 22, 1913; d. Aldeburgh, Dec. 4, 1976. He grew up in moderately prosperous circumstances; his father was an orthodontist, his mother an amateur singer. He played the piano and improvised facile tunes; many years later he used these youthful inspirations in a symphonic work which he named Simple Symphony . In addition to piano, he began taking viola lessons with Audrey Alston. At the age of 13, he was accepted as a pupil in composition by Frank Bridge, whose influence was decisive on Britten’s development as a composer. In 1930 he entered the Royal Coll. of Music in London, where he studied piano with Arthur Benjamin and Harold Samuel, and composition with John Ireland until 1933. He progressed rapidly; even his earliest works showed a mature mastery of technique and a fine talent for lyrical expression. His Fantasy Quartet for Oboe and Strings was performed at the Festival of the ISCM in Florence on April 5, 1934. He became associated with the theater and the cinema and began composing background music for films. In 1936 he met Peter Pears. From 1937 they appeared in joint recitals, remaining intimate as well as professional companions until Britten’s death. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Britten went to the U.S.; he returned to England in the spring of 1942; was exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. After the War, he organized the English Opera Group (1947), and in 1948 the Aldeburgh Festival, in collaboration with Eric Crozier and Pears; this Festival became an important cultural institution in England, serving as the venue for the first performances of many of Britten’s own works, often under his direction; he also had productions at the Glyndebourne Festival. In his operas, he observed the economic necessity of reducing the orch. contingent to 12 performers, with the piano part serving as a modern version of the Baroque ripieno. This economy of means made it possible for small opera groups and univ. workshops to perform Britten’s works; yet he succeeded in creating a rich spectrum of instrumental colors, in an idiom ranging from simple triadic progressions, often in parallel motion, to ultrachromatic dissonant harmonies; on occasion he applied dodecaphonic procedures, with thematic materials based on 12 different notes; however, he never employed the formal design of the 12-tone method of composition. A sui generis dodecaphonic device is illustrated by the modulatory scheme in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, in which each successive scene begins in a different key, with the totality of tonics aggregating to a series of 12 different notes. A characteristic feature in his operas is the inclusion of orch. interludes, which become independent symphonic poems in an impressionistic vein related to the dramatic action of the work. The cries of seagulls in Britten’s most popular and musically most striking opera, Peter Grimes, create a fantastic quasi-surrealistic imagery. Britten was equally successful in treating tragic subjects, as in Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, comic subjects, exemplified by his Albert Herring, and mystical evocation, as in his The Turn of the Screw . He was also successful in depicting patriotic subjects, as in Gloriana, composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. He possessed a flair for writing music for children, in which he managed to present a degree of sophistication and artistic simplicity without condescension. In short, Britten was an adaptable composer who could perform a given task according to the specific requirements of the occasion. He composed a “realization” of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera . He also wrote modern “parables” for church performance, and produced a contemporary counterpart of the medieval English miracle play Noye’s Fludde . Among his other works is the remarkable War Requiem, a profound tribute to the dead of many wars. In 1952 Britten was made a Companion of Honour, in 1965 he received the Order of Merit, and in 1976 he became the first English composer to be created a life peer, becoming Lord Britten of Aldeburgh. In collaboration with Imogen Hoist, Britten wrote The Story of Music (London, 1958) and The Wonderful World of Music (Garden City, N.Y., 1968; rev. ed., 1970).

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