top of page

Benjamin Britten

1913 - 1976

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh OM CH (22 November 1913 – 4 December 1976) was an English composer, conductor and pianist. He was a central figure of 20th-century British classical music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945).


Benjamin Britten, in full Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten Of Aldeburgh, (born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, Suffolk, England—died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, Suffolk), leading British composer of the mid-20th century, whose operas were considered the finest English operas since those of Henry Purcell in the 17th century. He was also an outstanding pianist and conductor.

Britten composed as a child and at the age of 12 began several years of study under the composer and teacher Frank Bridge. He later studied under John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin at the Royal College of Music in London and, while there, composed the set of choral variations A Boy Was Born (1933; revised, 1958). He then worked as a composer for the radio, theatre, and cinema, coming into close contact with the poet W.H. Auden. In 1937 his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, for string orchestra, won him international acclaim.

From 1939 to 1942 he was in the United States, where his first work for the stage, the operetta Paul Bunyan (1941; libretto by Auden), was performed. A commission by the Koussevitzky Foundation led to the composition of his opera Peter Grimes (1945; libretto by M. Slater after George Crabbe’s poem The Borough), which placed Britten in the forefront of 20th-century composers of opera. His later operas include The Rape of Lucretia (1946); the comic Albert Herring (1947); Billy Budd (1951; after Herman Melville); Gloriana (1953; written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II); The Turn of the Screw (1954; after Henry James); A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960); Owen Wingrave (television, 1971); and Death in Venice (1973; after Thomas Mann).

With the church parable Curlew River (1964), his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese Noh theatre and English medieval religious drama. Two other church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’s Fludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester mystery plays. The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival (founded 1947), which became one of the most important English music festivals and the centre of Britten’s musical activities.

Preeminent among Britten’s nontheatrical music are his song cycles. Among those that established his stature as a songwriter are (for voice and piano) Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940; written for the tenor Peter Pears, his life partner and artistic collaborator), The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), Winter Words (1953), and Hölderlin Fragment (1958); and (for voice and orchestra) Our Hunting Fathers (1936; text by Auden), Les Illuminations (1939; text by Arthur Rimbaud), and Serenade (1943).

Britten’s largest choral work is the War Requiem (1962) for choir and orchestra, based on the Latin requiem mass text and the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in World War I. Other choral works include the Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942; text by Auden), Ceremony of Carols (1942), Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), St. Nicolas (1948), Spring Symphony (1949), and Voices for Today (1965; written for the United Nations’ 20th anniversary).

Among his principal instrumental works are the Simple Symphony for strings (1925); three string quartets (1941, 1945, and 1976); concerti for piano and for violin; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945); and Symphony in D Major for Cello and Orchestra (1963), written for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.


Mstislav Rostropovich and Britten, 1964

Britten’s operas are admired for their skillful setting of English words and their orchestral interludes, as well as for their dramatic aptness and depth of psychological characterization. In chamber operas such as The Rape of Lucretia and the church parables, he proved that serious music theatre could flourish outside the opera house. His continual willingness to experiment with modern musical styles, forms, and sonorities and with new theatrical environments proved extremely fruitful.

Britten was created Companion of Honour in 1953 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1965. In June 1976 he was created a life peer, the first musician or composer to be elevated to the peerage.

War Requiem - Benjamin Britten

Anna Netrebko, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Thomas Hampson, barítono
Orchestra dell' Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Dirigent Antonio Paooano

"Spring Symphony"
From a 1963 performance at Philharmonic Hall in New York, here is Leonard Bernstein conducting the "Spring Symphony" by Benjamin Britten.  The soloists for this performance were Jennifer Vyvyan, Regina Sarfaty, and Richard Lewis, with the Boys' Choir from The Little Church Around the Corner and the Collegiate Chorale, along with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Part 1
1. Introduction: Shine Out (Anonymous)
2. The Merry Cuckoo (Edmund Spenser)
3. Spring, the Sweet Spring (Thomas Nashe)
4. The Driving Boy (George Peele, John Clare)
5. The Morning Star (John Milton)

Part 2   17:30 
6. Welcome, Maids of Honour (Robert Herrick)
7. Waters Above! (Henry Vaughan)
8. Out on the lawn I Lie in bed (W. H. Auden)

Part 3   29:16 
9. When will my May Come? (Richard Barnfield)
10. Fair and Fair (George Peele)
11. Sound the Flute! (William Blake)

Part 4   35:15 
12. Finale: London, to Thee I do Present (Anon, closing words from ''The Knight of the Burning Pestle'' by Francis Beaumont)

Benjamin Britten - Four Sea Interludes from "Peter Grimes", Op. 33a
I. Dawn
II. Sunday Morning
III. Moonlight
IV. Storm
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra - Paavo Järvi

Benjamin Britten - Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for String Orch. Op.10.

1. Introduction and Theme
2. Adagio
3. March
4. Romance
5. Aria Italiana
6. Bourrée classique
7. Wiener Waltzer
8. Moto perpetuo
9. Funeral March
10. Chant
11. Fugue and Finale

Slovak Chamber Orchestra
Bohdan Warchal Conductor

Benjamin Britten - Serenade for tenor, horn and strings op.31
Prologue 0:00
Pastoral - The Evening Quatrains (Charles Cotton) 1:19
Nocturne - Blow, bugle, blow (Alfred Tennyson) 5:16
Elegy - The Sick Rose (William Blake) 8:51
Dirge - Lyke-Wake Dirge (Anonymous) 13:45
Hymn - Hymn to Diana (Ben Jonson) 17:42
Sonnet - To Sleep (John Keats) 19:42
Epilogue 23:37

Peter Pears
Dennis Brain
BBC Symphony Orchestra - John Hollingsworth, 1953


Paul Bunyan Op. 17:

Operetta in two acts, 114'. Libretto by W. H. Auden, after the American folktale. Premiered on 5 May 1941 at Brander Matthews Hall, New York.

Peter Grimes Op. 33:

Opera in a prologue and three acts, 147'.
Libretto by Montagu Slater, after the poem The Borough by George Crabbe.
Premiered on 7 June 1945 at Sadler's Wells, London.


The Rape of Lucretia Op. 37:

Opera in two acts, 107'.
Libretto by Ronald Duncan, after the play Le Viol de Lucrèce by André Obey.
Premiered on 12 July 1946 at Glyndebourne.

Albert Herring Op. 39:

Comic opera in three acts, 137'.
Libretto by Eric Crozier, loosely after the short story Le Rosier de Mme. Husson by Guy de Maupassant.
Premiered on 20 June 1947 at Glyndebourne.

John Piper's Benjamin Britten memorial window in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh.


Britten's grave in St. Peter and St Paul's Church, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

J.Gay/B.Britten:"The Beggar's Opera" - act 1 (BBC 1963)
The Beggar: Roger Jerome
Peachum: David Kelly
Filch: Bernard Dickerson
Mrs. Peachum: Anna Pollak
Polly Peachum: Janet Baker
Macheath: Kenneth McKellar
Lockit: Bryan Drake
Lucy Lockit: Heather Harper
English Chamber Orchestra
dir.Meredith Davies
Director: Charles R.Rogers
recorderd 31 october 1963​

J.Gay/B.Britten:"The Beggar's Opera" - act 2 

The Beggar's Opera Op. 43:

Ballad opera, 108'.
Libretto after the ballad opera by John Gay.
Premiered on 24 May 1948 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.


Scallop by Maggi Hambling is a sculpture dedicated to Benjamin Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh. The edge of the shell is pierced with the words "I hear those voices that will not be drowned" from Peter Grimes.

J.Gay/B.Britten:"The Beggar's Opera" - act 3 

The Little Sweep - Part 1

Let's Make an Opera (The Little Sweep) Op. 45:

An Entertainment for Young People, 130'.
Libretto by Eric Crozier.
Premiered on 14 June 1949 at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Festival.

The Little Sweep - Part 2
TV Film version.
The Little Sweep An Opera for Children 

Britten - Billy Budd 
The 1966 television recording of Britten's opera, with Peter Pears, Peter Glossop, Michael Langdon, John Shirley-Quirk, Bryan Drake, David Kelly, Kenneth MacDonald et al, Ambrosian Opera Chorus, LSO, conducted by Charles Mackerras


Billy Budd Op. 50:

Opera in two acts, 158'.
Premiered on 9 January 1964 at the Royal Opera House, London.

Britten: Gloriana
Queen Elizabeth I - Joan Cross
Earl of Essex - Peter Pears
Lady Essex - Monica Sinclair
Lord Mountjoy - Geraint Evans
Lady Rich - Jennifer Vyvyan
Sir Robert Cecil - Arnold Matters
Sir Walter Raleigh - Frederick Dahlberg
Henry Cuffe - Ronald Lewis
A Lady-in-waiting - Adele Leigh
A Blind Ballad Singer - Inia Te Wiata
Housewife - Edith Coates
The Master of Ceremonies - David Tree
The City Crier - Maurece Bowen

Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus
John Pritchard, conductor

Live recording on June 8, 1953.

Gloriana Op. 53:

Opera in three acts, 148'. Libretto by William Plomer, after Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey.
Premiered on 8 June 1953 at the Royal Opera House, London

Benjamin Britten - The Turn Of The Screw

City of London Sinfonia
Orchestre dirigé par Richard Hickox

Mark Padmore - Quint
Lisa Milne - La gouvernante
Catrin Wyn Davies - Miss Jessel
Diana Montague - Mrs Grose
Nicholas Kirby Johnson - Miles
Caroline Wise - Flora


The Turn of the Screw Op. 54:

Opera in a prologue and two acts, 101'.
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the novella by Henry James. Premiered on 14 September 1954 at Teatro La Fenice, Venice.

Benjamin Britten - L'arche de Noé / Noye's fludde​

Noye's Fludde Op. 59:

Music-theatre for community performance, 50'.
Libretto after the Chester Miracle Play as published in 'English Miracle Plays, Moralities and Interludes'.
Premiered on 18 June 1958 at Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten - A Midsummer Night's Dream

New London Chidren's Choir: Ronald Corp; London Symphony Orchestra: Sir Colin Davis

A Midsummer Night's Dream Op. 64:

Opera in three acts, 144'. Libretto by the composer and Peter Pears, after the play by Shakespeare.
Premiered on 11 June 1960 at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh Festival.

Benjamin Britten – Death In Venice
(Full Film) - Tony Palmer Films

Death in Venice Op. 88:

Opera in two acts, 145'. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the novella by Thomas Mann.
Premiered on 16 June 1973, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival.

bottom of page