Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer

Benjamin Britten in 1948
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in 1948

We mark the birth on November 22, 1913 – 108 years ago today – of the English composer, pianist, and conductor Edward Benjamin Britten 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.

The danger of overstatement is great when tossing around superlatives, but with Britten it’s no danger at all. He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century; he was quite arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten. Britain composed scads of music(that’s a musical term, “scads”): orchestral music, choral music, chamber music, vocal music, and film music as well. But pride of place must go to his dramatic works: his War Requiem (of 1962) and his fifteen operas. Those operas include Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Prodigal Son (1968), and Death in Venice (1974). Britten’s operas constitute, by any measure, the most significant body of opera composed during the twentieth century.

Britten was lucky enough to have experienced fame and fortune in his lifetime; as “Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk,” he was the first composer ever to be granted a life peerage.

Britten’s was a rich, intense, and not uncontroversial life. This post will focus on his first 28 years: from his birth until 1941, the period that saw his “making of a composer.” Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will pick up in 1941 and will focus on Britten’s String Quartet No. 1 of 1941.…

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