Factfile 3

Benjamin Britten playing the piano at home in 1921. Photo courtesy of Britten100.org

Benjamin Britten playing the piano at home in 1921. Photo courtesy of Britten100.org

Who was Benjamin Britten?
Benjamin Britten was a British composer who lived in the 20th Century.
A composer is a person who writes music. There are many kinds of composers from different periods in history. There are also many styles of composition, from writing big pieces for large orchestras, writing film music, music for video games, solo instruments, big symphonies, pop songs, operas, music for advertisements…the possibilities are limitless.

Benjamin Britten was born in the Suffolk town of Lowestoft in 1913. Lowestoft is on the coast and interestingly, the music written by Benjamin Britten often transmits a strong sense of the sea as a theme, with powerful storms, sea birds, and quite empty, mysterious landscapes that magically paint themselves in our imagination when we hear much of his music … landscapes that are typical of the area where Britten spent most of his life.

Benjamin Britten was actually born on 22nd November, the ‘feast day’ of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Britten’s mother was a very keen singer and she was so happy that her son was born on this important symbolic day for musicians. In fact, Britten’s mother hoped that her son would become as famous as his predecessors who’s names also began with’B’…Bach, Beethoven and Brahms …she wanted her young Benjamin to become the fourth important ‘B’ in the world of music.

Right from a very early age, Britten showed a passion for music and composing. The young Benjamin would write and illustrate little books with his tunes written carefully on manuscript paper, (this is the special paper that music is written on, you can see what it looks like if you watch the film link at the bottom of this page.)

Britten began writing music at the age of 6yrs, when many of us have just begun to read and write…Benjamin loved to create his musical storylines. By the time Britten was 15 years of age, he had been talent spotted by another important composer of the time, Frank Bridge, who decided to teach him more about composition and guide him as a mentor, someone who watches over a person as they develop their talent and skills.

Benjamin Britten went to music college just as many young composers would today, and by his early twenties he was writing professionally for films and television, an incredible achievement for a composer just beginning their career.

Britten at Crag House in 1949. Photo by Roland Haupt

Britten at Crag House in 1949. Photo by Roland Haupt

Britten became very much the fourth ‘B.’ He travelled the world performing with his partner, the singer, Peter Pears (pronounced Peers) and he wrote some of the most inspirational classical music of his era. His extraordinary talent for setting words to music established Britten as an iconic composer of opera for the 20th Century, in addition to his identity for writing some exceptional works for solo instruments, ensembles and orchestra.

Britten was alive during the First World War, and during this time he decided to live in the United States, where he had already developed many musical links. He didn’t support fighting and war, and he was drawn to America as a place where he could stay peacefully. However, Britten was very homesick. Perhaps as a comfort, he began reading poetry written about his beloved Suffolk homeland, in particular he read a work by a poet about a Suffolk community who lived by the sea, and soon he decided that he needed to return home and write an opera inspired by this story.

The opera that Britten wrote was a story about a fisherman, Peter Grimes. The opera is called, ‘Peter Grimes,’ it is a dark and dramatic story of Grimes’ community turning against him because of a tragic accident. The opera was ground-breaking and had a huge impact in the musical world, putting British opera clearly on the map for the 20th century and the future.

Watch this short trailer for an exceptional 2013 production of Peter Grimes that was produced on the very beach where Britten set the opera all those years ago ... you can really get a feel for the place and the music of Britten through this film …

Benjamin Britten was very much at the cutting edge of culture during his lifetime. He was strongly anti-war and he was a champion for artists and their very important role within the community. Britten identified art as an essential element in our everyday lives…just as important as eating well, exercising, all those things that we understand are essential for us to be healthy.

Now that we live in a very high tech digital 21st Century age, it seems that the experience of live performance has taken on a new kind of importance. It is amazing that you can read this blog and travel across cyber space discovering so many incredible worlds, collecting all kinds of new knowledge… but it is still important to feel the buzz of energy when people come together to perform, or to watch a performance. It’s wonderful to be able to feel the atmosphere of creating music, watching a play on a stage, hearing a great orchestra, dancing … just as we need to hear the birds singing and feel the sun on our faces.
A community opera such as Noye’s Fludde is an extraordinary opportunity for hundreds of people to come together through music. This was a very important detail for Britten, and he would surely be happy to know that his work as a composer has travelled well through time so far.

Why not watch this short film from the Britten 100 site, to understand a little more about this very special composer …