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Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten (November 22, 1913 - December 4, 1976) was a British composer and pianist. He is generally considered to be the greatest British composer since World War II, and some say the greatest since Henry Purcell.

He was born in Lowestoft in Suffolk, lived in the USA from c.1939 to 1942 and died in Aldeburgh.

Some of his works were based on British folk songs, and they, like many of his operatic roles, were intended to be sung by his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948 and became a life peer in 1976.

One of Britten's best known works is the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government. It has the subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, and takes a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazar as its central theme. Britten gives individual variations to each of the instruments in the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. In the original film there was a spoken commentary, but this is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.

Commentary

Even today, twenty-five years after his death, it may be too early to achieve an objective assessment of the quality of Britten's works. This is because of the intense partisanship which surrounded it during his lifetime. When Britten's early works began to appear, musical criticism in England was deeply reactionary.

As the first British composer to turn his back on traditional 'englishisms' and embrace a continental culture fully, Britten met considerable hostility from those who found his music slick and 'clever' in a derogatory sense. There was also a good deal of envy and resentment at the fortunate support and publicity his music quickly attracted from publishers and record companies.

Perhaps the truth will be seen to lie somewhere in the middle. The present contributor considers Britten an uneven composer who possessed a unique and strong musical identity and personality, and who produced some works of enduring quality, such as Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, but who also, it must be admitted, had several fallow periods where he seemed to repeat a few well-worn devices. It must be remembered that Britten worked very quickly, often against punishing deadlines, and the techniques he evolved in writing illustrative music for the cinema in the 1930s served him for the rest of his life, not always with the most satisfying results.

Works



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