Saturday, 16 November 2013

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)

In six days it will be the 100th anniversary of his birth. Born in Lowestoft on 22nd November  1913 Benjamin was the youngest of 4 children. He received his first piano lesson at the age of five from his mother Edith.

By the age of fourteen Britten was receiving instruction from Frank Bridge during the school holidays. This was an important development in Britten's musical education.

The 1937 premier of Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge was performed at the Salzburg Festival.

In 1948 Britten and his partner Peter Pears founded the Aldeburgh Festival.

As one might expect from a musician born in Lowestoft the sea was eventually to play  a great role in Britten's compositions and he included it  in three world famous operas: Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice.

I found the above photograph of Benjamin Britten and W H Auden within my programme at Britten's Curlew River / Prodigal Son which I was privileged to see performed fairly recently at Vienna's Kammeroper.

Quite a few years ago on holiday in East Anglia I took the opportunity to stand at the side by side graves of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears the man in whose arms he died on 4th December 1976 at the age of sixty-three.

I was impressed by the twin rectangles of thin stone, perhaps it was slate, and the absence of adornment. Pompous marble statues garlanded with laurel leaves and hung about with golden chains are here not required.

People who live by the sea know the worth of a life cannot be measured by the size of a stone

In 1945 Britten was giving performances for ex-prisoners in Germany with Yehudi Menhuin and in 1962 his War Requiem was performed at the newly built Coventry Cathedral. 

The November 2013 issue of the Austrian theatre and culture magazine Bühne carries a three page tribute to Benjamin Britten titled The Pacifist and the Sea and a two page article under the heading Britten's Musical Universe which is all about Decca's new 65cd/1dvd boxed set: Britten, The Complete Works.

You can find a special musical treat to celebrate the 100th anniversary here. 


  1. One of my favourite composers. I love Ceremony of Carols especially Gwil - I think there is something of Suffolk in all his work. I heard someone on the radio yesterday talking about him, saying that he only liked to walk on the shore when it was very windy.

  2. When I was there I went to look at the shell memorial on the beach. I thought it was rather nice although I heard from a passer-by that there was some local controversy at the time it was erected.

  3. There was a lot of local opposition to the siting of Maggi Hambling's shell memorial to Britten on Aldeburgh beach.

  4. Rachel the other thing I remember on my walk along the coast is the erosion. Some roads seem to end abruptly above the sea. A woman told me in 20 years the village church would fall into the waves. There also somewhere a 'new' nuclear power station as big as a cathedral and right on the beach, or almost. There was a headline in the local paper which I had happened to notice that mentioned a crack. Needless to say I kept away from the thing.

  5. Sizewell Power Station. Very beautiful by the beach in its own way. Very important source of power and provider of work to the people of Leiston.

  6. Incidentally the task of removing the first of the spent fuel rods from the pool at Fukushima has now begun. If I lived in Japan I'd be thinking of taking a holiday in Rio.

  7. I hate to fall victim to the centenary thing (if artists are great lets enjoy a rich and varied diet of their work every year) but I must say the present goings-on have wakened an interest in his music.

    I think I said on my blog I was neither a fan nor a non-fan of his music. I've been turned into a fan! I watched Billy Budd the other night on TV. Gripping stuff. I found Janet Baker singing Phaedra on Youtube. Awesome. I've been listening to some of his piano music too. JB said she found some of the words to Phaedra almost to poignant to sing, given Britten's prognosis when he wrote it: "Death will give me
    freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
    unhappy's no catastrophe!"

    Looking forward to getting to know Curlew River and Death in Venice.

  8. Hi Dominic, you might also enjoy the Prodigal Son.


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