Britain Celebrates Britten

2013 marks the centenary of the birth of classical composer Benjamin Britten. In commemoration, an array of events that celebrate his lifetime’s contribution to classical music are being held in London and around England, with more to come. Liz Tse looks at the history of this iconic figure and highlights some of most exciting performances to be seen.

The Story of Benjamin Britten

Born in Suffolk in 1913, Britten’s passion for music began at an early age. His mother, Edith Hockney, was an amateur musician and gave Britten his first lessons in piano and notations. Although limited in technical discipline, her musical influence sparked a love that would pave way for his career as a successful pianist, composer and conductor. Later mentored by composer Frank Bridge through his adolescent years, Britten was able to learn a technical backing for his limited knowledge of music. He then went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London after gaining a Composition Scholarship. It was here where Britten learnt to hone in on his craft, studying under the guidance of John Ireland and Authur Benjamin.

Britten’s first performances to generate attention were his compositions ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’ in 1930 and ‘A Boy was Born’ in 1933. However, it was his introduction to poet W.H.Auden where he truly developed his musical style. Together they produced many successful pieces, some of which were included in the film Night Mail, The Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings and Paul Bunyan.

In 1937, Britten met tenor Peter Pears, who would have a significant influence on his work. Linked romantically and musically, the pair’s collaboration in the opera Peter Grimes catapulted Britten into international recognition. Peter Grimes, played by Peter Pears, was widely received by critics and remains one of Britten’s most celebrated works to this day.

The characterisation of Grimes as the social outcast would become a recurring theme in many of Britten’s operas. The individual versus society was prominent throughout his other works, perhaps as he himself felt isolated being a homosexual in a conservative society, and also from the fact that he took a pacifist stance during WWII, which was considered unpatriotic at the time. Empathy for the ‘social outcast’ can be seen in his music, especially with his works in Billy Budd (1951), The Turn on the Screw (1954) and Death in Venice (1973).

Britten’s lifetime dedication to music was rewarded with enviable accolades, including the Companion of Honour, as well as being appointed a prestigious member of the Order of Merit. However one of Britten’s greatest achievements was the launch of the Aldeburgh Festival alongside Pears in 1948. The launch was greeted by such success that it became an annual festival which Britten was heavily involved with until his death in 1976.

The Events in 2013

In celebration of Britten’s lifelong contribution to music, there are over 100 events across Suffolk and Norfolk in 2013. From opera to orchestral pieces, over 90 of Britten’s works will be played throughout the year to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Highlights from the events include Britten’s critically acclaimed Peter Grimes (June 2013), the Yorke Trust’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (July 2013) and music from a variety of Britten’s compositions will feature in A Time There Was (Nov 2013).

From community centres to concert halls, Britten’s works will be performed across a range of towns to honour his dedication to music. However, the heart of the centenary’s events will take place at Aldeburgh, where Britten lived most of his life. The town will host works such as Peter Grimes (June 2013), Curlew River (June 2013) and The Canticles (May 2013).

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge will be celebrated through dance. Performed by The Royal Ballet and choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, the recital will premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival (June 2013).

Britten and Pears’ collaborative concert recitals will be recreated throughout the year. Performances by Ian Bastridge (Sep 2013), Thomas Hobbs (May 2013) and James Gilchrist (Sep 2013) are notable highlights.

The dramatic opera War Requiem (March 2013) will be performed at Gresham's Choral Society and also by BBC’s Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Nov 2013). However, for a more lively piece, Britten’s Spring Symphony will be played by the Woodbridge Choral Society (March 2013).

The sheer scale of musicians, composers and creative minds involved with the events of Britten’s centenary show the vast influence he had over British music. His undeniable talent in composing, piano playing and conducting won over audiences worldwide, and his music continues to be celebrated to this day.

For more information on events that celebrate Britten’s centenary, head to http://www.familiarfields.org/benjamin-britten-events.html.


By Liz Tse