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Repertory Archive

Benjamin Britten


Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, England in 1913 and died in Aldeburgh in 1976.  He began composing at the age of five and during the following five years he wrote six string quartets and ten piano sonatas.  While he was still in school he studied piano with Harold Samuel and composition with Frank Bridge.  He then won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, where his composition teacher was John Ireland and his piano teacher was Arthur Benjamin.  Among his early published works were many choral works and solo songs.  His Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (for strings), was one of the early works which brought him into serious public notice (1937) and from the same period he began a considerable activity as a composer of music for over twenty documentary films, also providing incidental music for several stage plays.

In 1940, his Sinfonia da Requiem appeared, as did his Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (for tenor and piano; much sung by Peter Pears, his friend and a frequent interpreter of Britten’s music).

Operatic activity became prominent from 1945, in which year his Peter Grimes was produced; it was followed by The Rape of Lucretia (1946), the comic opera Albert Herring (1947), a freely treated version of The Beggar’s Opera (1948), Let’s Make an Opera (for children) (1949), Billy Budd (1951), Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1971, for television, and in 1973 for the stage), and Death in Venice (1973).

His important larger works include the War Requiem (1961), and a Cello Symphony (1964, composed for Mstislav Rostropovich and first given in Moscow), and The Children’s Crusade (1968).  Curlew River (1964), a combination of medieval and music drama a Japanese Noh play, and The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), were seen by some as the beginning of a new stage in his creative life.  In England the work of the English Opera group and the annual festival at Aldeburgh, in his native Suffolk, have helped materially to widen interest in his music.

Britten wrote Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra for the Viennese-born pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm in World War I.  Britten met Wittgenstein in New York in July 1940 and sketched the piece in August at Owl’s Head, Maine.  Although Wittgenstein complained about the orchestration, Britten declined to make any changes.  In spite of this situation, Wittgenstein retained the performing rights for a good number of years, which kept other pianists form performing the work.  Wittgenstein played the premiere of Diversions with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy on January 16, 1942.

Sources:   Oxford Companion to Music by Percy A. Scholes, 10th Editon; Oxford University Press, 1975