Benjamin Britten: Biography, Works & Operas

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Many music lovers and scholars consider Benjamin Britten one of the preeminent operatic composers. In this lesson, we'll learn about Britten's life and the music that he made, including some of his more famous choral and opera work.

Benjamin Britten: Composer

In the pantheon of composers, Britten is considered one of the preeminent opera composers; his work is among the most frequently performed, bested only by Puccini and Strauss. In stark contrast to his contemporaries, who embraced atonalism and serialism, Britten focused on creating aesthetically pleasing work. Of contemporary English composers, only Ralph Vaughan Williams was held in greater esteem, though at the time, Michael Tippett was considered his equal or better.

Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten

A Brief Biography

Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913 in Lowestoft, England. He was the youngest of four children, and at three months old, he nearly died from pneumonia. Though his music was frequently religious in nature, Britten was either a radical Christian or an agnostic, depending on the source. He was also a pacifist; much of his work dealt with the perils of war, death, and violence. In 1939, Britten began a lifelong romantic and professional relationship with Peter Pears. He died of congestive heart failure on December 4th, 1976.

Choral and Opera Work

First and foremost, Britten is primarily known for his operas, especially Peter Grimes, composed in 1944-45. It is a moral work that addresses innocence in relation to violence and the effect of unwarranted suspicion. The piece is fairly tonal for the time, considering that by the 1940s, Schoenberg had already established atonalism. It includes two of the more exotic musical modes: Lydian (based on the fourth scale degree) and Phrygian (based on the third scale degree), as well as the use of bitonality (two tonal centers at once). In this case, the final scene uses C major for the orchestration and A major for the choral and solo parts, both of which occur at the same time.

Britten's other opera and choral works of significance include A Boy Was Born (1934), A Ceremony of Carols (1942), the Spring Symphony (1947), Billy Budd (1951), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), Noye's Fludde, a children's opera (1958), and Death in Venice (1973).

Britten was not well known for his instrumental work; he composed very little for the piano, no traditional symphonies, and only a handful of what he called symphonies, which might be more accurately described as concerto's, wherein the orchestra plays accompaniment to the solo instrument. Very little of his instrumental music continues in the traditional instrumental repertoire.

Other Music: War Requiem

A requiem is a musical composition that follows the liturgical elements of the Roman Catholic Mass. It is meant as a prayer for the dead. In his War Requiem, Britten includes the Aeternam, Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Libera me components of the Catholic Mass. Interwoven between the canonical parts are nine poems about war by Wilfred Owen, an English officer and poet who was killed during the First World War.

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