5 Minute Tute: Benjamin Britten

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Who was Benjamin Britten?

Britten was the leading British composer writing in the middle of the twentieth century, one of the few British artists who established and maintained an international reputation as a serious composer from early in his career. His attitudes were rooted in the left-wing intellectualism of the 1930s. His strong pacifism shaped his artistry: outsiders or those who suffer from misguided exercise of power are consistently alluded to in his music. British composers often display a fine understanding of vernacular texts; Britten’s friendship with the poet W.H. Auden in his twenties helped intensify his sensitivity to literary works and his music frequently engages with these on a sophisticated level.

What was his contribution to music?

He had a huge impact on the musical and cultural wellbeing of Britain. He established the English Opera Group, which toured the country to introduce operas, including his own chamber operas, to audiences nationally. He believed passionately in creating and performing music of the highest standard, yet he also knew that amateur musicians were to be encouraged and he wrote much music both for them and for children. His Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was the piece of music (alongside Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf) that introduced schoolchildren to the world of classical music in the second half of the last century.

What made him such a great musician?

Britten’s composing output was consistently sustained by– at times impinged upon by– his activities as a practical musician. Alongside his composing he was hugely active as a conductor and pianist and a remarkable archive of recordings of this is available for study and enjoyment. With his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, Britten performed countless recitals at home and abroad, introducing his own work alongside the songs of Dowland and Purcell as well as the finest Lieder composers of the Western canon, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf. He collaborated also with many other leading musicians of the day, including the composer, Shostakovich, and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

What is his legacy?

Immediately after his death in 1976 Britten went briefly out of fashion: composers often do. But in the years since, various works are consistently performed in mainstream repertory. The two most frequently heard are his 1945 operatic masterpiece Peter Grimes and his most ardent pacifist statement, War Requiem of 1962. Britten also had a keen business sense and he established a music festival in his home town of Aldeburgh that remains one of the most impressive artistic events of the summer, happily avoiding a clash with the Proms. The educational work achieved at Aldeburgh is testimony to an incredibly rich and busy life of music making. Moreover, he showed British musicians that it was possible to be a significant professional composer; and the huge number of young composers writing in Britain today suggests how well he established this.

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