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Benjamin Britten

Composer

Biography

Benjamin Britten in action.
Benjamin Britten © Britten Pears Foundation

English composer, conductor and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913–76) was one of the leading musical figures of his generation. Perhaps the greatest of his many legacies is the revival of English opera. His operatic masterpieces include Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, the Church Parables and Death in Venice. Britten premieres at The Royal Opera House include Billy Budd, Gloriana, Owen Wingrave (stage premiere) and his only ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas.

Britten was born in Lowestoft and began writing music at an early age. He studied at the Royal College of Music with Frank Bridge and began his professional career in the General Post Office Film Unit in 1935. Early successes included Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) and his Piano Concerto (1938). A conscientious objector, in 1939 Britten moved to the USA with the tenor Peter Pears, his lifelong partner and muse; they returned to England in 1942. Works from the American period include his first stage work, Paul Bunyan (1941). The tremendous success of Peter Grimes (1945) won Britten international recognition. For the rest of his life he remained at the forefront of British music, with other great works including War Requiem (1962), Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (1963) and Phaedra (1975).

Britten’s music reflects such diverse influences as English folksong and Balinese gamelan. His music always celebrates and encourages the ingenuity and creativity of his performers, a legacy continued today by the Aldeburgh Festival, which he founded in 1948.

Videos

News and features

Holding up a mirror: How opera composers reflect community and society

Holding up a mirror: How opera composers reflect community and society

19 November 2015

Composers have long experimented with different ways of giving a sense of community, often using the chorus to highly dramatic effect.

Some things are better left unsung: Why composers use speech in opera

Some things are better left unsung: Why composers use speech in opera

2 November 2015

Composers have long explored the gamut of vocal expression from a whisper to a scream.

Irresistible stories: Myth and art

Irresistible stories: Myth and art

22 June 2015

Fantastical stories thousands of years old continue to influence today’s most prominent artists.

Photos

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten with Peter Pears in Brooklyn 1940

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I, Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex and Patricia Bardon as Countess of Essex in Gloriana

Kate Royal as Lady Rich, Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex. Patricia Bardon as the Countess of Essex and Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy in Gloriana

The Royal Opera's Gloriana

The Royal Opera's Gloriana

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Basil Coleman (producer), Benjamin Britten and Joan Cross during rehearsals for 'Gloriana' (1953) at Orme Square.

Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in The Prince of the Pagodas

Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex and Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana

Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex, Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy and Kate Royal as Lady Rich in Gloriana

Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy and Kate Royal as Lady Rich in Gloriana

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I and Jeremy Carpenter as Robert Cecil in Gloriana

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I, Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex and Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy in Gloriana

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana

Composer Benjamin Britten

Joan Cross and Jennifer Vyvyan in Gloriana

Edward Evans and Peter Bray in Britten's The Canticles.

Pianist Julius Drake and tenor Ian Bostridge in Britten's The Canticles.

Edward Evans and Peter Bray in Britten's The Canticles.

Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I, Lake Laoutaris-Smith as Time and Guilia Pazzaglia as Concord in Gloriana

The Royal Opera's Gloriana

Joan Cross as Elizabeth I in The Royal Opera's original production of Gloriana

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Joan Cross, Basil Coleman (producer) and Benjamin Britten during rehearsals for 'Gloriana' (1953) at Orme Square.

Marianela Nunez and Nehemiah Kish in The Prince of the Pagodas

The Prince of the Pagodas

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Covent Garden Opera Company in Gloriana (1953)

Basil Coleman (producer), Benjamin Britten and Joan Cross during rehearsals for 'Gloriana' (1953) at Orme Square.

Joan Cross, Basil Coleman (producer) and Benjamin Britten during rehearsals for 'Gloriana' (1953) at Orme Square.

Rehearsals for ‘Gloriana’ (1953) in the Crush Bar.

Dancers from Frantic Assembly's training programme, Ignition, in Britten's The Canticles.

Toby Spence as the Earl of Essex in Gloriana