Benjamin Britten


20th Century

Benjamin Britten was a 20th-century British composer. A lot of his music is written for children, including one piece you’ve probably heard before, even if you don’t realise it: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It helps people recognise the timbre (the character of sound) of all the different instruments in the orchestra.

Britten was born in Suffolk, on the east coast of the UK. When he went to school he was like all the other boys – except that he wrote music. He wrote it all the time. It was his thing!

He went on to write music for all sorts of combinations of instruments. The sound-world Britten created was often fascinating. He loved the human voice and lived for 30 years with the tenor Peter Pears, writing much music for him. Together they founded the Aldeburgh Festival; people still go there every year to hear wonderful concerts.

Britten was a pacifist: he didn’t believe in fighting. When World War Two broke out, he and Pears went to America for three years. When they came back in 1942, Britten got permission not to be in the British Army. Instead he wrote the opera that made him internationally famous: Peter Grimes – an atmospheric account of a murder by an outsider, set on the Suffolk coast that he knew so well. Many years later, he composed his War Requiem in honour of the soldiers who died during both world wars. It’s a deeply sad piece, and reminds us of everything that gets destroyed during wartime.

As a youth, Britten had studied with an older composer, Frank Bridge, who told him ‘you should find yourself and be true to what you find’. That’s what he did. The result was music like no other; progressive but conservative; childlike but very clever. When you listen to Britten’s music you hear wonderful inventiveness but somewhere, at the heart of it, a strange quality of loneliness. Listen to the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and see what you think. Before he died, Britten was made a baronet, a great honour. He said his aim was simply ‘pleasing people today as seriously as we can.’ In that he succeeded.

Benjamin Britten, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to some music by Benjamin Britten.

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34: Theme

This inventive and brilliant work was designed to show off all the different aspects of the orchestra. Can you hear how it introduces the various instruments and textures?

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335

A Ceremony of Carols: This Little Babe

This is from Britten’s Christmassy A Ceremony of Carols. Can you hear how he creates an echo by splitting the music into two parts (0:22) then three parts (0:40), which come in one after the other?

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Skaila Kanga, harp; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.553183

Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a: II. Sunday Morning

Peter Grimes is a sad and moving opera, set in a harsh coastal town. This track introduces a sunny Sunday morning, though things are not cheerful for long!

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.557196

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which poet was a close friend of Britten’s?

a. W.H. Auden
b. Philip Larkin
c. Matthew Arnold

 Who wrote the book the opera on which Death in Venice is based?

a. Henry James
b. Hermann Hesse
c. Thomas Mann

 Which festival did Britten found with Peter Pears and Eric Crozier?

a. Aldeburgh
b. Tanglewood
c. Banff

 What is the name of the main concert hall at Aldeburgh?

a. Malt Hall
b. Snape Maltings
c. Severus Snape

 In which year did Britten become the first composer to be awarded a life peerage?

a. 1968
b. 1976
c. 1980

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Britten was a fabulous pianist – he started lessons at the age of seven – and he also played the viola.
  2. Britten’s father was a dentist and didn’t care much for music; it was his mother who loved it.
  3. When Britten was three months old, he nearly died of pneumonia – it left him with a weak heart for the rest of his life.
  4. Shostakovich, a long-time friend, dedicated his Fourteenth Symphony to Britten.
  5. Britten composed an opera especially for television – a ghost story called Owen Wingrave.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral and Concertos

The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34

This inventive and brilliant work was designed to introduce and show off all the ingredients of the orchestra. You hear each section (woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion) take turns playing the melody. Then it gets divided further, with individual instruments playing solos so you can hear what each one is like. They come together for a grand finish! Can you hear the different sounds in the orchestra?

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550335

Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (extracts)

This was Britten’s first really major work, and it brought him into the public spotlight. The ten variations (four of which are included here) are based on a theme by Britten’s fellow composer and teacher Frank Bridge. Using the same theme, Britten creates little pieces that sound and feel quite different from each other. Compare the slow Variation 1 with the lively Variation 4, for example!

Performers: English Chamber Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.557200

Sinfonia da Requiem

This piece marked an early high for Britten. Though originally written for the nation of Japan, it was first premiered in New York in 1941.

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.557196

Violin Concerto

People have only recently come to realise what an important and beautiful work this is. It wasn’t very well known during Britten’s lifetime. Today we understand its originality better.

Performers: Lorraine McAslan, violin; English Chamber Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.557198

Choral and Solo Vocal

Friday Afternoons, Op. 7

A collection of 12 songs that was written for the pupils at Clive House School, Prestatyn where his brother was headmaster. They’re called ‘Friday Afternoons’ because that’s when the school used to do class singing! The children are accompanied by a piano.

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Alexander Wells, piano; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.553183

A Ceremony of Carols

This is a Christmas piece that Britten wrote while at sea – on a ship from the USA to England. The choir is in three parts, but it is all for treble voices – Britten wrote it for a choir of boys, as well as a harp. Setting medieval poems, it begins and ends with the choir processing (walking steadily up the aisle of a church or hall), while singing plainchant – a style of singing from medieval times. In the middle are some atmospheric, sprightly and exciting pieces.

Performers: New London Children’s Choir; Skaila Kanga, harp; Ronald Corp

Taken from Naxos 8.553183

War Requiem, Op. 66 (excerpts)

Britten’s War Requiem reminds us how terrible war is – how it brings suffering and death. He uses the usual Requiem text in Latin (a Requiem is a Mass for the dead) as well as poetry by the great First World War poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action. Britten was a pacifist – he objected to fighting whatever the circumstances. His Requiem is both disturbing and beautiful. It is disturbing because it creates so brilliantly the idea of destruction. But it is beautiful as it reminds us of what we lose when it is destroyed. Listen to the boys’ choir singing in the first track at 2:49: when the piece is performed, the boys sing from high up, away from everyone else, so the audience has the effect of angels. And then listen to track 2 – ‘Dies irae’ (Day of Judgement) – with the tension building towards the brass fanfares c. 1:40, the drum rolls, and the choir’s powerful singing of ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ (‘the trumpet, casting a wondrous sound’) at 2:12.

Performers: Lynda Russell, soprano; Thomas Randle, tenor; Michael Volle, baritone; Scottish Festival Chorus; The Choristers of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral Choristers, Edinburgh; Nigel Boddice, conductor of Chamber Orchestra; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; George McPhee, organ; Martyn Brabbins

Taken from Naxos 8.553558-59

Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op. 74 (excerpts)

Britten wrote this difficult and gripping set of songs in 1965 for the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It’s since been acknowledged as one of his most powerful and dark works.

Performers: Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572600

Hymn to St Cecilia, Op. 27

Though certainly not Britten’s longest choral work, this is one of his most enduring and popular. Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music.

Performers: Jonathan Bungard, tenor; Benedict Giles, treble; Ben Harrison, treble; Richard Moore, alto; Thomas Reuben, bass; St John’s College Choir, Cambridge; Christopher Robinson

Taken from Naxos 8.554791

Instrumental and Chamber Music

String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94

This string quartet, completed in 1975, is one of the last pieces Britten ever wrote. He was very ill at the time. It’s deeply powerful and expressive.

Performers: Maggini Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.554360

Cello Suite No. 2, Op. 80

Britten wrote three solo cello suites for the legendary Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the second one in 1968.

Performers: Tim Hugh, cello

Taken from Naxos 8.553663

Lachrymae, Op. 48, ‘Reflections on a Song of John Dowland’

Britten played the viola as well as the piano. He wrote several pieces for the instrument, including this masterpiece.

Performers: Matthew Jones, viola; Annabel Thwaite, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.573136

Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70

This is one of the most important and ground-breaking pieces for guitar of the twentieth century. John Dowland was an English Renaissance composer famous for his lute songs, and Britten admired him very much.

Performers: András Csáki, guitar

Taken from Naxos 8.57263


Four Sea Interludes, Op. 33a (from Peter Grimes)

Peter Grimes is a deeply sad and moving opera, set in a harsh coastal town in Suffolk. The main character is a fisherman: the villagers suspect him of cruelty towards his apprentices, and eventually he is hounded to his death. These brilliant ‘sea interludes’ separate scenes in the opera – they’re for the orchestra only. You can hear how the music describes each title, almost as if it’s painting a picture for your ears!

Performers: London Symphony Orchestra; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.553107

Albert Herring (extracts)

Albert Herring is a shy boy, and he is teased by other people in the village – but he learns how to stand up for himself in the end! Unlike most of Britten’s operas, this one is a comedy – the village is full of funny characters, young and old, and we can imagine them all bustling about. The orchestra used is not very big – Britten is very precise in choosing which instruments he wants to play where. He is clever. Just listen to the first track here (the beginning of Scene 2), where the children’s game of bouncing a ball against the door is represented brilliantly by different drums.

Performers: Christopher Gillett, tenor (Albert Herring); Josephine Barstow, soprano (Lady Billows); Felicity Palmer, mezzo-soprano (Florence Pike); Robert Lloyd, baritone (Superintendent Budd); Peter Savidge, baritone (Mr Gedge); Gerald Finley, baritone (Sid); Ann Taylor, mezzo-soprano (Nancy); Della Jones, mezzo-soprano (Mrs Herring); Susan Gritton, soprano (Miss Wordsworth); Stuart Kale, tenor (Mr Upfold); Northern Sinfonia; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.660107-08

The Turn of the Screw (excerpts)

Based on a ghost story by Henry James, this is one of Britten’s scariest operas. It’s all about a child, Miles, who is tormented by a malevolent spirit. You can tell right from the beginning, with the rippling notes coming and going on the piano, that it is mysterious. In Act I, the new governess, Miss Jessel, arrives and discovers that although Flora and Miles are good children, something strange is happening in the house and it affects them.

Performers: Philip Langridge, tenor (The Prologue, Quint); Felicity Lott, soprano (The Governess); Sam Pay, treble (Miles); Eileen Hulse, soprano (Flora); Phyllis Cannan, soprano (Mrs Grose); Nadine Secunde, soprano (Miss Jessel); Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble; Steuart Bedford

Taken from Naxos 8.660109-10