Music History Monday for November 22, 2021, was entitled “Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer.” The Dr. Bob Prescribes post that followed, on November 23, 2021, featured Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, which was composed in 1941. Between them, those two posts outlined the first 29 years of Britten’s life, from his birth in 1913 through 1942. In this post, we will push Britten’s biography forward to 1962, the year he completed his War Requiem, paying special attention to Britten’s life-long pacifism.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Edward Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, roughly 105 miles northeast of London. He died in nearby Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63. He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century but arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten.
Britten began piano lessons at seven. At the age of eight, he was enrolled in South Lodge Preparatory School just down the hill from his family home. The headmaster of the South Lodge School was named Thomas Sewell, a Cambridge graduate and World War One veteran who was then in his mid-thirties. As headmaster, Sewell spared not the rod. In a 1971 interview, Britten recalled:
“I can remember – I think it was the very first day that I was in school – that I heard a boy being beaten, and I can remember my absolute astonishment that people didn’t immediately rush to help him. And to find that [such beatings were] condoned and accepted was something that shocked me. Whether or not ‘it’ all grew from that I don’t know.”
“It” refers to Britten’s life-long pacifism. His partner Peter Pears (pronounced “peers”; 1910-1986) believed that Britten’s “it” did indeed start in response to Headmaster Sewell’s brutality. Pears said:
“He [Britten] organized a [protest] at his prep school, about some beating or other, and he got into a certain amount of trouble over that.”
Writing music came as naturally to the young Britten as talking; he composed roughly 800 works before his first publication at the age of 19. He attended the Royal College of Music in London from 1929 until 1933 (from the age of 16 to 20), where he scooped up virtually every composition prize available. …
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