Benjamin Britten: A Musical Life [Part 1]

Opera-goers tend to hold certain associations with the giants of opera composition. Apocryphal or not, they are the quick definitions that come to mind at the mention of a composer’s name. One tends to think of Mozart as a child prodigy, a playful flirt, a tortured genius. Wagner? Gesamtkunstwerk visionary, megalomaniac, anti-Semite. Verdi? Political revolutionary. Rossini? Funny fat man. Bizet? French one-hit-wonder. Britten?…Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

Though Benjamin Britten was the most prolific and successful opera composer of the mid-2oth century, though his works are already staples of the repertory at opera houses around the world, his name does not yet ring familiar for most people. Even the casual opera subscriber (in the U.S., that is) would likely be hard-pressed to name more than one Britten opera, let alone any information about the man beyond his nationality.

The Britten-Pears Foundation–our lead sponsor for The Turn of the Screw in January–has done an admirable job of combating this trend. Following the Foundation’s example and utilizing the full resources of their brilliant website, we will be exploring Britten’s life in a multi-part series on The MadOpera Blog in preparation for our new production The Turn of the Screw.

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Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, England on November 22, 1913. Lowestoft is about 3 hours northeast of London on the coast, and the sea will have deep personal and musical significance for Britten throughout his life. His childhood home in Lowestoft is now a bed and breakfast.
Britten was the youngest of four siblings. His father was a dentist, and his mother an amateur musician. The Britten-Pears Foundation reports that his mother encouraged all of the Britten children musically, though while South Lodge Preparatory School, young Benjamin developed a passion for sport as well, specifically tennis, swimming, and cricket.

Music ruled, though, and Britten first scribbled down notes at the age of 5. At the age of 7, piano lessons began and viola lessons followed shortly. By the time he was 14, he was studying composition with Frank Bridge, whose composition The Seas had “knocked him sideways.”

To fully gauge the depth of young Britten’s musicality, explore this timeline with audio samples of his earliest compositions. They range from jovial, childish ditties to more self-conscious imitations of classical forms, but all nonetheless plainly exhibit a burgeoning talent.

In September 1928, Britten began to board at Gresham’s School in Norfolk. He enjoyed sports and music at school but was homesick, though this did not thwart his creativity. While at Gresham’s, he began to set poetry to music, and at the age of 16 he won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. He lived with his sister Beth and studied composition with John Ireland, who was known for a style branded “English impressionism,” heavily influenced by Debussy and Ravel. But despite writing his official “Opus 1” (Sinfonietta) and developing his skills at RCM, Britten did not feel musically at home in the conservatory setting. With more time and freedom, Britten would begin to come into his own.

*Facts and photos via The Britten-Pears Foundation website.

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