WH Auden called it a “low, dishonest decade”, when sordid compromises and betrayed ideals pushed the world towards war. Yet Benjamin Britten entered the 1930s as a teenager and left them as an artist with an international profile: the decade defined him, both as man and artist. Auden and Isherwood didn’t just widen his artistic horizons into theatre and film; they showed him a way to live as an outsider while remaining true to his own cultural identity.
Amidst the overcast uncertainties of 1950s Britain, that way of looking at the world would prove uniquely relevant. Britten worked closely with, or drew into his circle, many of post-war Britain’s most distinctive creative voices: E M Forster, the artist John Piper and his wife Myfanwy; the singers Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker and Robert Tear, and the composers Imogen Holst, Oliver Knussen and Colin Matthews – amongst many others.
And Britten also looked backwards and around him, into an alternative national heritage. The music of Purcell, and the poetry of George Crabbe, Christopher Smart and Wilfred Owen all owe much of their modern standing to Britten’s rediscovery of their work; and his folk settings and church music showed that the dustiest traditions could speak with a bracingly fresh voice.
The gay, left-wing pacifist of the late 1930s raised hackles when he tried to write a “national” opera, Gloriana, for the 1953 coronation, but in 1962 the War Requiem turned out to speak for a new and different generation. A very British kind of radical, he ended his life as Lord Britten of Aldeburgh – and his setting of the National Anthem has become a 21st century tradition at the Last Night of the Proms.