The Kennedy Center

Benjamin Britten


Composer-conductor Benjamin Britten was born November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, Suffolk County, England. He started piano and viola study before age five, musical composition at age six, and entered the Royal Conservatory of Music at age 17, following three years of private composition study with English composer Frank Bridge.

Upon graduating from the RCM, Britten began working for the film division of the BBC, creating incidental music for films and other productions. During the late thirties he also worked with a number of theatrical and musical performing groups which shared his left-wing and pacifist viewpoints. These activities led to his association with W. H. Auden, whose poetry provided texts for a number of songs. It was during this time that he met tenor Peter Pears, who became his musical associate and life companion. Many of Britten's vocal compositions were written to be performed by Pears, who also achieved wide acclaim in his own right for lieder and oratorio performances throughout Europe and America.

In 1939 Britten and Pears went to America, where they lived until their return to England in 1942, when Britten was exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. While in America Britten's work drew the attention of Serge Koussevitsky, whose Koussevitsky Foundation commissioned the Opera Peter Grimes, based upon a story by English poet George Crabbe. Completed in 1945 it was premiered by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company, and a year later in America by conductor Leonard Bernstein. With Peter Grimes Britten was assured international recognition as a major figure in the world of music.

Britten was an unusually prolific and versatile composer. Operas, solo vocal and choral works, orchestral and chamber pieces, as well as incidental music for film and theater flowed from a rich musical energy over his entire career. His best known works include "The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" (1946), based on a theme by Henry Purcel, the massive War Requiem (1962), and his first opera, Peter Grimes. (1945).

Together with Peter Pears, and Imogene Holst, (daughter of composer Gustav Holst) Britten established the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, which continues to attract world class performers and composers each year. Some of Britten's finest compositions were premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival.

A stroke during a heart operation in 1973, resulted in Britten becoming an invalid for the remaining three years of his life. He died in December 1976, only a few months after being named a Life Peer by the Queen. He is buried in the family plot at Aldeburgh. His partner, Peter Pears, who died in 1986, and Imogene Holst lie in graves on either side of his own.
Benjamin Britten


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