Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976
The house where Benjamin Britten was born on 22 November 1913 could not look more ordinary, or more English. 21 Kirkley Cliff Road is a semi-detached seaside villa. Behind it is the Suffolk fishing port of Lowestoft. But in front of it is the North Sea, over which, each morning of Britten’s early childhood, the sun would rise.
Britten had cultured parents, and his talent was recognised early. The romantic composer Frank Bridge nurtured his creativity; and the young Britten experienced the amateur music-making and church choirs of his home town alongside the European modernism of Mahler, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The BBC broadcast his cantata A Boy Was Born on 23 February 1934: the day Elgar died. By then Britten had already been welcomed into the radical avant-garde by the writers Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden – whom he followed to the USA as war loomed in 1939.
And with the triumphant premiere of his opera Peter Grimes at Sadlers Wells in June 1945, Britten stepped forward as the musical voice of post-war Britain. Eight more operas followed, as did choral works, educational music and songs – more often than not, written for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. With the War Requiem of 1962, “grand old man” status seemed to have arrived early – but Britten continued to innovate and look outwards, cultivating a friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich, and gathering around him at Aldeburgh on his native Suffolk coast an extended artistic family of friends, collaborators and fellow-creators.
When he died in December 1976, five months after becoming the first British composer to be elevated to the peerage, few saw his passing as anything but untimely. As man and artist, Britten may have been deeply rooted in the landscape and society of his early life, but he never stopped striving towards that shining horizon.