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© Rob Barnett
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL
Britten was born Edward Benjamin Britten in Lowestoft, Suffolk on 22 November 1913 less than a year before the start of the Great War. That his birthday coincides with Saint Cecilia’s Day (the name day of the patron saint of music) is, we shall say, a happy coincidence. His birthplace was to remain a constant subject and influence throughout his life. He was very much the Benjamin of the family; the youngest. His cousin Elsie Hocking was convinced that he was born with his musical qualities and that “no-one taught Ben anything.” He was brought up completely normally. He loved sports, could stand up for himself and was good with his fists. His elder brother Robert remembers having to fight with him to get to the family piano.
Before going to school at age nine he went to ‘prep school’ but even before that he had taken piano lessons and had been composing since he was five. At school he continued to compose and took viola lessons. From these years date a symphonic poem ‘Chaos and Cosmos’ and two enormous symphonies - all now disowned. School also inculcated him into a regime of cold baths.
Benjamin Britten 1933 at South Lodge School, Lowestoft
courtesy of the Britten-Pears Library
When he was ten he encountered the music of Frank Bridge (1879-1941). While many composers (e.g. Bliss) begin as revolutionaries and gradually become increasingly conventional, Bridge’s career tracked the reverse route. His early compositions were tuneful and uncomplicated though masterful enough and compelling (e.g. the orchestral suite The Sea and that epitome of the ‘lost England’ Summer). Bridge, who gradually became more of an outsider, found his musical language changing to a much more oblique, complex, quasi-atonal style after the Great War. His wonderful Piano Sonata (in memory of the composer Ernest Farrar, killed in action) is marked by the abyss of those years and the loss of many of his friends and pupils. The Third and Fourth String Quartets, the orchestral Enter Spring, There is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook, Oration for cello and orchestra (Concerto Elegiaco) and Phantasm for piano and orchestra were works whose challenging language did not find easy acceptance. Even as a conductor he was very much a third string option for concert promoters and the BBC rather than a celebrity choice.
Britten attended the 1924 Norwich Triennial Festival and heard Bridge conduct his suite The Sea. The impact was immediate and deeply registered: “He was knocked sideways” by it. The influence of this bright orchestral work in Bridge’s earlier style can be heard in Britten’s greatest work, Peter Grimes and particularly in the Sea Interludes from the opera. In 1927 the impact was further affirmed by hearing Bridge conducting the premiere of his Enter Spring, again at Norwich. This striding, glorious, impressionistic work gripped Britten’s imagination. Echoes can be heard in Britten’s own Spring Symphony (1949). As late as the mid-1960s Britten conducted an exulting version of Enter Spring at a time when Bridge’s reputation was largely dictionary-based rather than living.
In 1928 Britten began regular lessons with Bridge who took the young composer under his wing and went to concerts with him, generally directing his growth and development. There was no molly-coddling. Bridge had no other pupils and he treated the callow Britten as if he were an adult. Bridge’s influence also extended to his attitude to war and much of Britten’s pacifism can be traced back to these days.
1928 was, incidentally, the year when William Walton’s brilliant Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra was premiered in London by York Bowen. This was a work with each of the three movements dedicated to a different Sitwell. Britten set some of Edith Sitwell’s words later in life and his last (and unfinished) work set a text by her. Walton was rumoured to have envied Britten’s success especially in opera. Troilus and Cressida was in part the Oldham composer’s attempt to emulate that triumph.
ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC
In 1930, at the age of 16, and with many compositions already under his belt, he entered the Royal College of Music in London with an open scholarship. His composition lessons were with John Ireland whose song cycle The Land of Lost Content he was later to record for Decca with Peter Pears. He studied piano with Arthur Benjamin having previously worked during school holidays with Harold Samuel. He became and remained a brilliant pianist and was later renowned as an accompanist par excellence in Schubert lieder, joining Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The following year, as a star pupil, he won the Farrar Prize (£7) for composition. Given that Farrar was the dedicatee of the Bridge Piano Sonata, Britten must have taken some pleasure in this prize providing a circular link with Frank Bridge. Despite his prowess as a pianist he did not compose at the piano. His method was to compose in his head and then at the desk.
Many of the early works have been and are being ‘excavated’ and recorded. This process began during the 1980s and continues. His Quatre Chansons Françaises dating from 1928 have been brilliantly recorded by Simon Rattle. However from 1932 his early works began to achieve celebrity performances and broadcasts. His Sinfonietta, completed in 1932, and dedicated to Bridge, was premiered in London in 1933, the year when he again won the Farrar Prize. Chafing at the R.C.M.’s restrictions which prevented him studying with Berg in Vienna, he left the College in 1933.
Index to BIOGRAPHY by Rob BarnettINTRODUCTION AND REPUTATION
EARLY YEARS AND SCHOOL
ROYAL COLLEGE OF MUSIC
SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
I.S.C.M. AND SPANISH INTERLUDE
AN EXILE OF SORTS
RETURN TO ENGLAND
THE WAR IS OVER
THE CONFIDENT 1950s
RUSSIAN ENCOUNTERS AND FRIENDSHIPS
A CHANGE OF PUBLISHERS
THE MALTINGS, SNAPE
THE CLOSING CHAPTERS
AND THEN ……
THE PRINCIPAL WORKS OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN
A CHRONOLOGY OF HIS WORKS