Socialist Worker

Benjamin Britten's anniversary is a chance to celebrate one of the best British composers

by Rob Hoveman
Issue No. 2031

Benjamin Britten was the greatest of the British classical composers of the second half of the 20th century. He ranks among the greatest British composers ever.

It’s fitting therefore that the 30th anniversary of his death should be celebrated.

Britten was born in 1913, just before the First World War, and had a relatively privileged education. He began composing at a very early age.

In 1935 he met the poet WH Auden and they produced the politically radical song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, little performed today. His sympathies were clearly on the left and he supported the Republican cause in Spain. He also wrote his first opera Paul Bunyan to a libretto (words) from Auden.

His greatest creative collaboration however came with his lifelong partner, the tenor Peter Pears who he met in 1936. Some of his greatest vocal work was written for Pears.

Having spent the early part of the Second World War in the US he returned to Britain in 1942. He then wrote his greatest opera Peter Grimes.

The libretto for Grimes was written by the ex-Communist Montagu Slater. It was based upon the story of George Crabbe’s original poem, but transformed it.

It is the tragic story of a misunderstood outsider desperately trying to achieve an ambition of married happiness by catching enough fish to support a family.

There are two accidents involving the young boys he takes to assist him. These lead to him being hounded by the village and a final, tragic act. It is musically wonderful and dramatically compelling.

The theme of the outsider haunts two of Britten’s other great operas Billy Budd and the Turn of the Screw.

Britten was also commissioned to write the great War Requiem celebrating the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. He used the Latin Mass and nine poems by Wilfred Owen to provide the text for this brilliant and moving work.

Britten was not as radical in his politics as his contempory Michael Tippett. He was originally shunned by parts of the musical establishment and beyond. In the end, the state offered him honours.

He turned down a knighthood in the 1960s but accepted a peerage just before his death. This does not detract from the fact he wrote some of the great operas of the 20th century.


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Sat 16 Dec 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2031
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