11-22-1913

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

BENJAMIN BRITTEN, British composer, conductor and pianist was born on this date (d. 1976); Britten’s first compositions to attract wide attention were the Sinfonietta (Op.1), “A Hymn to the Virgin” (1930) and a set of choral variations A Boy was Born, written in 1934 for the BBC Singers. The following year he met W.H. Auden with whom he collaborated on the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers, radical both in politics and musical treatment, and other works. Of more lasting importance was his meeting in 1936 with the tenor, Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his life partner.

In early 1939, the two of them followed Auden to America. There Britten composed Paul Bunyan, an operetta (to a libretto by Auden), as well as the first of many song cycles for Pears; the period was otherwise remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (written in 1937 for string orchestra), the Violin Concerto, and Sinfonia da Requiem (for full orchestra).

Britten and Pears returned to England in 1942, Britten completing the choral works Hymn to Saint Cecilia (his last collaboration with Auden) and A Ceremony of Carols during the long sea voyage. He had already begun work on his opera Peter Grimes based on the writings of Suffolk poet George Crabbe, and its premiere at Sadler Wells in 1945 was his greatest success so far. However, Britten was encountering opposition from sectors of the English musical establishment and gradually withdrew from the London scene, founding the English Opera Group in 1947 and the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, partly (though not solely) to perform his own works. Grimes marked the start of a series of English operas, of which Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were particularly admired.

These operas share common themes, with that of the ‘outsider’ particularly prevalent. Having previously declined a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage on July 2, 1976 as Baron Britten, of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk. A few months later he died of heart failure at his house in Aldeburgh. He is buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church there. His grave lies next to that of his partner, Sir Peter Pears.

February House: W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles and Gypsy Rose Lee  Under One Roof in Wartime America is a fascinating and entertaining 2006 history of Britten and Pears living in a communal house on Middagh Street in Brooklyn and well worth finding and reading..