Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The birth of a twentieth-composer who some consider the “fourth B”: Benjamin Britten…
Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913—St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music—in Lowestoft, Suffolk, overlooking the English east coast. Music and the English coast were the forces that would shape his life. These twin influences were combined in perhaps the most profound way a full century after Britten’s birth.
Britten’s mother was a singer and pianist, and offered the young Britten copious early encouragement: her ambitious desire was for her son to become the “fourth B,” following Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The precocious Britten played the piano and composed from a young age, and he eventually moved south to London to study at the Royal College of Music. There, he was exposed to a dazzling array of contemporary music, from Stravinsky and Schoenberg to William Walton. His fondness for the music of Alban Berg was particularly intense, and he intended to go and study with the Austrian composer, but was discouraged from doing so by both his parents and the RCM. Berg’s impassioned combination of Romanticism and Modernism, though, would remain a touchstone.
Britten made good progress as a composer after his studies, with a string of successful works written through the 1930s including the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Les illuminations, a thrilling setting of Rimbaud for solo voice and orchestra, written for a soprano but soon taken up by the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner.
His most major success came in 1945, with one of the 20th century’s most important operatic premieres. Peter Grimes was first performed at Sadler’s Wells, London, on June 7, 1945, with World War II in its final stages: it was a month after the Germans had surrendered.
Britten returned to his roots on the Suffolk coast in Peter Grimes, which is based on a poem by George Crabbe. It is the story of a fisherman, a native to the close-knit village known as the Borough but despised by its other residents. The sea itself almost becomes a character, especially through the beautiful series of interludes (Four Sea Interludes) that Britten extracted from the opera and turned into a concert suite: you can hear excerpts from all four of them, in their original operatic contexts, in this article.
Britten later returned to live in the nearby village of Aldeburgh, where he started a music festival that goes from strength to strength today. His centenary in 2013 was widely celebrated—most memorably through a production of Peter Grimes that took place in the almost unbelievably apt surroundings of Aldeburgh Beach, with the natural elements that shape the music swirling all around.