"I have a very dread of becoming one of those artists who talk."
After two hundred years with no major composer to speak of, English music, beginning with Sir Edward Elgar, has enjoyed a great renaissance through the 20th century. At the centre of the admirable talent stands Benjamin Britten. While Elgar and Vaughan Williams wrote mainly for the concert hall, Britten concentrated more on vocal music and especially opera.
Britten had a way of subtly distorting familiar harmonies and rhythms, so that they sound strangely but attractively new. From opera and song to concerto and string quartet, nearly all of his music grips the ear and the imagination in this same fascinating and quite haunting way.
Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Britten was a child prodigy. He wrote his first music at the age of four. In 1924 he began his formal music studies with composer Frank Bridge, and by the time he was twelve he had composed a dozen large-scale works. In 1930 he entered the Royal College of Music in London, and by the age of twenty-one he was self-supporting as a composer, chiefly from writing film-scores and incidental music for radio plays. The sensational success of his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge at the 1937 Salzburg Festival clinched his reputation.
In his early twenties he was a member of a group of left-wing intellectuals centred on the poet W.H. Auden. These left-wing views were based on a conviction that the 'ideal state', where everyone would be well cared-for and happy, lay just around the corner. Britten's ideals were brutally shattered by the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism.
In 1939 Britten took flight, first to the USA, then to a fishing village on the Suffolk coast, where he finally settled. It is impossible to overestimate the effect on his character of this crushing of his youthful optimism: throughout this life he preferred isolation to public fame, and his work consistently shows an anguish at the dark side of human nature, a pessimism paralleled only in Mahler and Shostakovich. The opera Peter Grimes written toward the end of War World II, is a prime example of this. An international audience immediately hailed Peter Grimes as a masterpiece. This piece, together with the operas and other works that followed, all written in his own dramatic, yet simple style, put Britten in the front rank of English composers and made him one of the few to attract a world-wide audience.
Another key to Britten's work is his understanding and love of poetry: Inspired by the shape and sound of words, Britten shares Schubert's ability to penetrate to the heart of a poem in a handful of ordinary-seeming notes. In addition to his composing, he was a perceptive and inspirational pianist and conductor.
In spite of the major heart surgery in 1973 that reduced Britten's activities, he was the first musician to be made a life peer of the British Empire (partially in recognition of the annual festival of music he established and supported in Aldeburgh, Suffolk). Benjamin Britten died in Aldeburgh on 4 December, 1976.
contributed by Gifford, Katya