If Benjamin Britten had achieved nothing else, he would rank as the greatest opera composer Britain has produced since the time of Purcell – arguably, the greatest opera composer of the second half of the twentieth century. The premiere of Peter Grimes (1945) didn’t just announce the emergence of a fresh, powerful and deeply humane musical dramatist. It remade opera for the post-war age, as an art form in which social issues could inspire heartfelt drama, and the political becomes unforgettably personal.
Britten’s later operas range from drawing-room comedy (Albert Herring – 1947) to psychological horror (The Turn of the Screw – 1954) and sensual fantasy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream – 1960); each, though, shares an unerring sense of drama, an intimate understanding of the human voice and an absolutely distinctive creative sensibility. Whether coolly atmospheric, exuberantly playful or stark and powerful, they are always, unmistakably, Britten.
Those qualities define Britten’s superb body of choral music, from Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) to the Spring Symphony (1949) and the War Requiem (1962), and his extraordinary, genre-busting song-cycles Les Illuminations (1939), Serenade for tenor, horn and strings (1943) and Winter Words (1954). They also allowed him to prove that great contemporary music could be written for amateurs and young people. St Nicolas (1948), Noyes Fludde (1958) and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946) continue to delight and entertain without a hint of condescension.
Even the many works by Britten that defy categorisation – the Metamorposes after Ovid for solo oboe, the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Church Parables, and three richly-imagined string quartets – speak with that voice: clear but questioning, timeless but modern. Like the “wind and water” of Britten’s beloved Aldeburgh, they’re local – and yet absolutely universal.
Want to know more? Explore Britten’s music on the Britten100 website here, where you can search by everything from mood to genre and listen to a huge range of audio clips. You can also see Britten’s music and life in the form of a timeline here, and listen to some of the music which features in the Birmingham celebrations on our Spotify playlist.