Benjamin Britten, born in 1913, was a British composer of some note. His music, usually operatic and written for choral voices and accompaniment, is dramatic and solemn.

He began composing at a young age, and when he was 17 entered the Royal College of Music. After graduating he found a job writing accompanying music for, of all things, General Post Office documentaries. While there he met with poet W.H. Auden, with whom he later collaborated on several pieces.

In 1939, at the start of World War II, Britten emigrated to the US with Peter Pears. Britten was strongly anti-war (as is evident in his War Requiem) and left as a conscientious objector, though he later returned in 1942.

He has won numerous accolades and awards for his music, perhaps most significantly among them being named a Companion of Honour in 1952 and a member of the Order of Merit in 1965.

In 1968 he became seriously ill with heart disease, but continued to compose. He insisted on finishing what was to end up being his last opera, Death in Venice, before undergoing heart surgery. He died in 1976.

He is widely supposed to have been gay. He lived with Peter Pears, the famous tenor that many of his solo pieces were written for, for many years, and they emigrated to America together and enjoyed a close relationship. Some sources openly acknowledge that they were partners; others gloss over it or say only that they were friends.

His major works include:

-The Turn of the Screw
-Peter Grimes
-Billy Budd
based on Melville's short novel
-A Midsummer Night's Dream
from Shakespeare
-Curlew River
-Death in Venice
-A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra
-Ceremony of Carols
A solemn celebration of the nativity, and perhaps his most enduringly popular work. For boy's choir and harp, though many mixed choirs sing it.
-War Requiem
Another ceremony, this one composed for the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, the famous church destroyed by nazi bombers in World War II. It features poetry by Wilfred Owen. It was first performed in 1962 at the reconsecration of the Cathedral, featuring three soloists of diverse origin - one from England, one from Germany, one from Russia. It is strongly anti-war, singing of the terrible loss and senselessness of war.

Because Britten was a 20th century composer, I feel that it is necessary to break down his career a little further.

Britten's career can be broken into three periods:
  • The end of the first period is Peter Grimes (1945) which displayed that, without dispute, Britten had reached musical maturity.
  • The second period culminates with the War Requiem (1961); this period represents his largest body of work and the end of any serious developments or changes in style.
  • The third period, which could more easily be described as a sort of Indian Summer, was short and not as prolific as the others, but brought with it the Third String Quartet, perhaps Britten's finest chamber work.


After the War Requiem, the composer broadened his vision and became more experimental with color, orchestration, and an expansion of his already considerable technique. A major masterpiece of the form, his Symphony for Cello and Orchestra resides within this period.

The Symphony for Cello and Orchestra is often overlooked in favor of the War Requiem but the craftsmanship and emotional mastery contained therein cannot be denied. The Allegro Maestoso is massive for Britten and thoroughly explores the sonata-allegro form. The Scherzo contains wonderful counterpoint and a motif based on a third; this is telling to the keen ear because thirds dominate the rest of the symphony both in harmonic and within the development of the motivic statement.

Another interesting observation must be made about the advancement of Britten's orchestration. While it was not at all bad before the Cello Symphony, with it Britten displayed his considerable knowledge and talent for orchestration by solving the problem of the cello voicing. Cellos are always difficult to clarify within the the orchestra, and Britten took the simplest solution first: the upper woodwind and bass line are over-emphasized opening the middle voice of the orchestra to the cello.

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