Once we found out The O Word was being launched on Britten’s birthday, we HAD to write an article about this incredible composer. Happy 102nd Birthday, Britten!
On November 22nd 1913, in a fishing port in Suffolk, a young woman named Edith Rhoda gave birth to a baby boy and named him Benjamin Britten. This little boy, at three months old, would contract pneumonia and nearly die. If this infant had died, we would have lost some of the finest compositions of the 20th Century: Peter Grimes, The War Requiem, The Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra, and so many more song cycles, operas and orchestral works. Luckily, the child survived and, beginning compositions at age five, would continue to write some of the greatest classical music of the 20th Century. Edith Rhoda, his mother would hope for him to become one of the four B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Britten. But who was this brilliant composer, and how successful was he? Here are 10 interesting facts you might know about this well-known British composer.
- 22nd November, Britten’s Birthday, is also the Feast of St Cecelia.Why is that important? St Cecelia is the Patron Saint of Music. Obviously she decided in 1913, it was time to add something new to the mix!
- Britten played viola.Whilst he began composing at 5, and learning piano at age 7, Britten then took up the viola at age 10.(We won’t judge him too harshly on this poor instrument choice.)
- At University, his examiners were two outstanding English composers.Britten had a composition scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London. Whilst studying, he was the student of John Ireland and one of his examiners was none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams. No pressure, Britten.
- Britten was a pacifist.When World War II broke out, Britten and Peter Pears (his partner) registered as conscientious objectors. Britten was exempted from military service and allowed to continue his composition work if he agreed to perform as a pianist at the wartime concerts promoted by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts.
- Britten tried to marry his partner off to someone else.Britten and his life partner, Peter Pears, were a happy couple of forty plus years. After returning to England after many years in America, Britten was visited by police in 1953. Police were being urged to enforce anti-homosexuality laws and Britten was so shaken by this incident that he suggested Pears should enter a sham marriage to destroy rumours. To think, it would only take sixty years for same sex marriage to become legal in England!
- Excuse me, sir, it’s Baron Britten.Britten was the first composer ever to be honoured with a life peerage. In 1976, Britten became Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.
- Britten could not stand criticism.Join the club. But Britten would dump friends who would offend him, and received very harsh criticism during his time in America. He was not confident he was the genius others suspected him to be. Although super critical to his own work, he was incredibly sensitive to other people’s opinions of his work.
- He did NOT die of Syphilis.Strange thing to say boldly, I know, but no one is ever safe from gossip; not even Britten. There have been recent speculation Britten’s heart failure in 1976 was due to undetected syphilis. Britten’s own consultant cardiologist described this as “Complete Rubbish”. Britten suffered with health problems all of his life, and had a weak heart due to his pneumonia as a baby. He was also routinely tested for syphilis, with negative results.Britten’s heart failed on December 4th, 1976 and was buried in the churchyard at Aldeburgh Parish Church. Ten years later, Pears would be buried by his side.
- Britten’s final goodbye and final composition.On his 63rd birthday, 22 November, 1976, at his request Rita Thomson organized a champagne party and invited his friends and his sisters Barbara and Beth, to say their goodbyes to the dying composer. When Rostropovich made his farewell visit a few days later, Britten gave him what he had written of Praise We Great Men.
- Britten was a musical genius.Britten’s use of unusual harmony and unusual music means that he isn’t everybody’s cup of tea; you either love his music or hate it. But no matter what your opinions, you can’t deny that this man wrote incredible music that would make a serious impact on the classical world. Neill Powell, and many others, compare him to the likes of Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar as one of Britain’s finest composers.
Still not convinced? Our writers at The O Word tell you why Britten’s Got Talent.
Katherine Goyder: I am an absolute lover of all things Britten. The more I discover of his music, the more I fall in love. I was exposed to his folk song arrangements in my first year of university and was then lucky enough to play (a very tall) Hermia in his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There is something so extraordinary about Britten’s way of writing music. Despite it’s difficulty, his music somehow feels natural to sing. His use of harmony, the contrasting vocal lines, and use of unusual rhythms created something so interesting to perform, and something so wonderful to listen to. As a trombonist turned singer, I live for the ‘Bottom’ moments in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the incredible bass voice is accompanied by the staccato notes in the trombone section. When it came to planning my Graduation Recital, I knew I immediately had to include the work of Britten: A Britten Bracket. What better than a selection from his A Charm of Lullabies, his folk song arrangements, and his Cabaret Songs? Britten is one of the most clever composers I have listened to. I am a particular fan of Britten’s arrangement of The Salley Gardens with bassoon and knew immediately I had to work it into my recital as the bassoon creates the sorrowful, contemplative mood and is just perfect with this piece. I personally think every singer should be performing his music, and every student listening to his Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra, as he just has something to teach everyone. I am so excited to continue discovering the music of this fantastic composer. Happy Birthday, Britten!
Katherine’s Britten Music recommendations: Cabaret Songs, The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, A Charm of Lullabies, The Turn of The Screw (Opera)
Louis Hurley: Only two nights ago, I performed a graduation recital for my Bachelor of Music. And it is only fitting that I am writing about Benjamin Britten on the anniversary of his birthday, as my final bracket was made up of my favourite Britten folk song arrangements. Everyone seems to have a different relationship with Britten’s music, where I seem to love everything wrote, I know many people who have a love/hate relationship with him (or even hate/hate in some cases!).
Like many young singers, my experience with Britten’s music started in high school with the folk song arrangements. They are generally simple, and don’t detract from the original sentiment of the folk songs, but show extensive harmonic exploration that screams of Britten’s unique character. I have also just been in WAAPA’s production of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a fantastic setting of the famous Shakespeare play. I believe it showcases Britten’s extensive diversity as a composer, with three tiers of characters within the opera. The Mechanicals are the working class, which Britten pairs to folk-like music, whilst the lovers are paired with a much more romantic compositional style. The third tier of characters are the fairies, who are represented in a rather other-worldly manner, with mystical atonal passages that contrast perfectly with the rest of the opera. A Midsummer Night’s Dream embodies the very reason I love Benjamin Britten, his diversity of composition without losing his unmistakeable character. And that character is why people hotly contest his works – you either love it or hate it. Fortunately for him (and fortunately for the world) they have been loved more than hated and his works are regularly performed today.
As I sign off, I beg you to go and listen to some Britten today! The final chorus of Midsummer is gorgeous (see above)! Canticle II is heavenly haunting, the Purcell arrangements are genius, and the folk song arrangements are just cute! And If you’re keen for a laugh and have a spare 2.5 hours watch Albert Herring on YouTube! Happy 102nd Birthday Benjamin!