‘John Egerton Christmas Piper suffered digestive problems around 1963 and, on Benjamin Britten’s recommendation, began seeing Dr Michael McCready, a homeopathic doctor in Belgrave Square, who advised a diet that forbade milk, butter, and eggs‘.
He was educated at Old Buckenham Hall School in Suffolk, an all-boys prep school, and Gresham’s School, Holt. In 1927, he began private lessons with Frank Bridge; by the following year he had composed Quatre Chansons françaises for soprano and orchestra, though it appears that his abilities as an orchestrator were essentially self-taught rather than learned from Frank Bridge.
He also studied, less happily, at the Royal College of Music under John Ireland, with some input from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Although ultimately prevented by his parents (at the suggestion of College staff), Britten had also intended to study with Alban Berg in Vienna. He studied both the piano and the viola; the piano was his only instrument as an adult, but the viola would play a significant role in many of his adult works.
Britten was a prolific juvenile composer; some 800 works and fragments precede his early published works. His 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.
In this same period he wrote Friday Afternoons, a collection of 14 songs mostly for unison singing, for the pupils of Clive House School, Prestatyn where Britten’s brother, Robert, was headmaster.
In April 1935, he was approached by the film director Alberto Cavalcanti to write the film score for the documentary The King’s Stamp, produced by the GPO Film Unit.
He subsequently met Wystan Hugh Auden, who was also working for the GPO Film Unit; together they worked on the films Coal Face and Night Mail. They also collaborated on the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers Op. 8, radical both in politics and musical treatment, and other works.
Of more lasting importance to Britten was his meeting in 1937 with the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his musical collaborator and inspiration as well as his life partner.
In the same year he composed a Pacifist March (words, Ronald Duncan) for the Peace Pledge Union, of which, as a pacifist, he had become an active member, but the work was not a success and soon withdrawn. One of Britten’s most noteworthy works from the 1930s was Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, Op. 10, written in 1937.
Already friends with the composer Aaron Copland, Britten encountered his latest works Billy the Kid and An Outdoor Overture, both of which manifestly influenced his own music. While in America Britten wrote his first music drama, Paul Bunyan, an operetta (to a libretto by Wystan Hugh Auden). The period in America was also remarkable for a number of orchestral works, including the Violin Concerto Op. 15, and Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20 (for full orchestra).
In the meantime, Britten had had his first encounter with Balinese gamelan music through the transcriptions for two pianos made by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee. Britten first met Colin McPhee at Stanton Cottage in the summer of 1939, and the two subsequently performed a number of Colin McPhee‘s transcriptions for a recording. This musical encounter was to bear fruit decades later in several Balinese-inspired works including The Prince of the Pagodas, Noye’s Fludde and Death in Venice.
Britten and Peter Pears returned to England in 1942, and both applied for recognition as conscientious objectors; Britten was initially refused recognition, but gained it on appeal. He completed the choral works Hymn to St. Cecilia (his last large-scale collaboration with Wystan Hugh 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’s Wells in 1945 was his greatest success thus far.
However, Britten encountered 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 by no means solely) to perform his own works.
From 1949 to 1951 he had his only private pupil, Arthur Oldham. One of Arthur Oldham‘s achievements was the setting for full orchestra of Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, for the Frederick Ashton ballet Le Rêve de Léonor (1949).
Peter Grimes was the first in a series of English operas, of which Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954) were particularly admired. His Shakespeare opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed in 1960. These operas share common themes. Even in his comic opera Albert Herring of 1947, all feature an ‘outsider’ character excluded or misunderstood by society. Often this is the eponymous protagonist, as in Peter Grimes and Owen Wingrave.
Britten was appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in the Coronation Honours, 1953.
An increasingly important influence was the music of the East, an interest that was fostered by a tour with Peter Pears in 1957, when Britten was struck by the music of the Balinese gamelan and by Japanese Noh plays. The fruits of this tour include the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas (1957) and the series of semi-operatic “Parables for Church Performance”: Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968). The greatest success of Britten’s career was, however, the War Requiem, written for the 1962 consecration of the newly reconstructed Coventry Cathedral.
Britten developed close friendships with Russian musicians Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich in the 1960s. He composed his Cello Suites, Cello Symphony and Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, and conducted the first Western performance of Dmitri Shostakovich‘s Fourteenth Symphony. Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated this score to Britten, and often spoke very highly of his music. Britten himself had previously dedicated The Prodigal Son (the third and last of the ‘Church Parables’) to Dmitri Shostakovich. He was honoured again by appointment to the Order of Merit (OM) on 23 March 1965.
In his last decade, Britten’s health deteriorated, and his later works became more and more sparse in texture. They include the operas Owen Wingrave (1970) and Death in Venice (1971–1973), the Suite on English Folk Tunes “A Time There Was” (1974) and Third String Quartet (1975)— which drew on material from Death in Venice— as well as the dramatic cantata Phaedra (1975), written for Janet Baker.
Having previously declined a knighthood, Britten accepted a life peerage on 2 July 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, with a gravestone carved by Reynolds Stone. The grave of his partner, Peter Pears lies next to his, and near to that of Imogen Holst, a close friend.
The Red House in Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears lived and worked together for almost thirty years, is now the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation established to promote their musical legacy.