Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the east coast of England, on St Cecilia’s Day (the patron saint of music) 22 November 1913. He was a precocious child, writing large quantities of music very early, but feeling in need of a teacher, in 1928 turned to the composer Frank Bridge; two years later he went to the Royal College of Music in London and was soon earning his living as a composer, having joined the GPO (Post Office) Film Unit.
At the start of WW2, Britten was in the US, and stayed there for three years — these were formative times, not least for the dazzling array of artists he met and worked with, but also for producing masterpieces like Sinfonia da Requiem.
Back in Britain, where as a conscientious objector he was excused military service, he began work on the piece that would establish him beyond question as the preeminent British composer of his generation — the opera Peter Grimes, premiered to an ecstatic reaction on 7 June 1945. Although he felt an outcast as a result of his pacifism and his relationship with singer Peter Pears, his great strength of character shone through in his music, through which he created a unique voice in twentieth century music.
Britten’s importance in post-War British cultural life was enhanced by his founding of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 — it was an interesting choice, far from the cultural centre of London, that underlined his commitment to making music in a different kind of way. Community was of great importance to Britten. Britten’s later career was clouded by bouts of ill-health, culminating in heart disease. He never fully recovered from open-heart surgery in 1973, and died on 4 December 1976, at the age of 63, a few months after being appointed a life peer — the first composer ever to know that honour.
Click here to read about Britten’s Third Suite for Cello being performed on Matthew Barley’s Around Britten tour.
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