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Benjamin Britten at 100

Philip Süthoff / gnbNovember 22, 2013

Prodigy, pacifist, exile; the most successful English composer of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten, was a man of many facets.

British composer Benjamin (Edward) Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh (1913 - 1976). Original Publication: People Disc - HJ0036 (Photo by Denis de Marney/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

One hundred years ago - on November 22, 1913 - Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, a seaside town in southeast England. He didn't grow up in a musical family, but his childhood home along the shore provided one of his first aural experiences: the rhythmic crash of waves.

A child prodigy, he learned piano at the age of five. Within a few years, he was not only getting lessons on the viola but also writing his own compositions.

The sea remained a principal musical influence throughout the composer's life, and Lowestoft, an idyllic resort in the summer, would be Britten's home for 21 years.

Holidaymakers on the beach at Lowestoft, Suffolk, circa 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Lowestoft was a popular seaside destinationImage: Getty Images

A well-known secret

At the beginning of 1937, Britten lost two people very close to him in quick succession: his mother, Edith, and his friend Peter Burras. Britten fell into a deep depression, and his compositional productivity faltered. However, he also deepened his friendship and ultimately developed a relationship with the tenor Peter Pears at this time.

In 1938, the couple moved from London to Hudson's Mill in Britten’s former hometown. "An unparalleled collaboration began in this former malt mill; a symbiosis of composer and performer that is rarely seen in the history of music," says playwright and journalist Norbert Abels.

Despite the relationship with Pears lasting until Britten’s death in 1976 and the composer's homosexuality being well-known among his circle of friends, he never had an official coming out.

Flight into exile

In spring 1939, Britten and Pears embarked on a three-year period of exile in North America. After the Second World War got underway in Europe, the ardently pacifist Britten and Pears spent most of their time at February House, an artist’s colony in Brooklyn.

The dual benefits of moving in left-liberal circles and the harmonious relationship he shared with Pears meant that, despite the outbreak of war, Britten felt content.

Benjamin Britten standing next to Peter Pears (c) picture-alliance / dpa
Benjamin Britten (r) with life partner Peter PearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tour of terror

A homesick Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942. Exempt from military service, Britten was instead engaged by the Arts Council of Great Britain to provide musical entertainment for those who suffered most heavily from the effects of the war.

As part of his work, Britten headed to Germany with the violinist and composer Yehudi Menuhin after the war's end in 1945. There, they gave concerts organized by the Western and Soviet allies in barracks, convents and schools. For Britten, the tour revealed first-hand some of the atrocities committed under Hitler's rule. Seeing the faces of people who had only recently been saved from mass extermination was an experience he would never forget.

Autobiographical composition

Among the most prominent elements of Britten's oeuvre are the 1945 opera "Peter Grimes" as well as his Lieder cycles. The human voice and lyrics served as his compositional starting point - a blessing, then, that Britten would always have Pears, a highly talented tenor, at his side.

More so than with many other composers, much of Britten's work is highly autobiographical. Therefore, it's hardly surprising that his opera "Peter Grimes" includes four so-called "Sea Interludes" and even less surprising that the pacifist Britten created the ultimate anti-war statement in "War Requiem." Composed for the inauguration of the newly-built St. Michael’s Cathedral in 1962, the piece was written not only to honor the war dead but also to exhort listeners to embrace peace. In the spirit of reconciliation between the two nations, the tenor part was sung by Briton Peter Pears, while baritone duties were taken on by German Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

English tenor and organist Peter Pears (1910 - 1986) singing at the rehearsal for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem' at Coventry Cathedral. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)
Tenor Peter Pears rehearses Britten's "War Requiem"Image: Getty Images

Britten died of congestive heart failure in 1976, but his "War Requiem" remains a powerful anti-war statement.