By Philip Carter
The 22nd of November is the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians and church music, and the 22nd of November 1913 was the birthdate, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). The young Britten displayed an extraordinary musical talent and his mother had high hopes for her son: young Benjamin, it was said, was to be the fourth ‘B’ after Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.
Donald Mitchell, author of Britten’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, examined the start of his lifetime’s association with music:
“The child’s first musical experiences would have been hearing his mother sing, and it cannot be altogether accidental that song, in its broadest sense, and more specifically the relationship of words to music—their colour, their rhythm—was to form so large a part of the œuvre he created in his maturity. This was a reason, too, no doubt, for his eventual choice of an aspiring and gifted young tenor, Peter Pears, as his lifelong companion, about whose voice a close friend from the Lowestoft years remarked that it recalled in character the voice of his mother.
“While recognizing the importance of the maternal influence it would be a mistake to exaggerate it. Some of Britten’s most remarkable compositions are to be found among his chamber music and his orchestral works, and while it is certainly true that songs are prominent among his earliest compositions, so too are numerous string quartets, many sonatas for piano, and a by no means inconsiderable array of attempts at large-scale orchestral works. One must be ever wary in Britten’s case of drawing too strict parallels between life and art. His prodigious musical gifts, which declared themselves at an astonishingly early age—a legitimate and meaningful parallel here with Mozart and Mendelssohn—undoubtedly in themselves would have constituted a prime influence, in particular his exploration of the absolutely basic materials of music—scales, triads, and so forth—at the keyboard.”
Britten became one of England’s greatest composers, as well as a highly accomplished pianist, conductor, and a champion of his seventeenth-century predecessor, Henry Purcell—not least in his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946). Britten was also among the finest modern composers for the human voice—with song cycles such as the Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings (1943), operatic works including Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and The Turn of the Screw (1954), and church music which comprised hymns and odes to his patron saint, Cecilia.
In addition to its life of Benjamin Britten, the Oxford DNB includes entries on his partner, the singer Sir Peters Pears, and on many who worked with Britten—among them W.H. Auden, his fellow collaborator at the GPO Film Unit in the mid-1930s; Eric Crozier, one of the co-founders, with Britten, of the Aldeburgh Festival; Britten’s musical assistant Imogen Holst; and Montagu Slater, librettist for Peter Grimes (1945), based on a text by the poet and clergyman George Crabbe (1754-1832).
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Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Read more about Benjamin Britten on the Oxford DNB website. The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to log-on to the complete dictionary, for free, from home (or any other computer) twenty-four hours a day. In addition to 58,800 life stories, the ODNB offers a free, twice monthly biography podcast with over 190 life stories now available. You can also sign up for Life of the Day, a topical biography delivered to your inbox, or follow @odnb on Twitter for people in the news.