Benjamin Britten is The Other Birthday Boy

Benjamin Britten with soprano Galina Vishnevskaya(Photo: BrittenGalina)
Benjamin Britten with soprano Galina Vishnevskaya(Photo: BrittenGalina)

I’ve been going on about Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, both born in 1813. I’ve neglected Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) who’s centennial is celebrated this year.

He had a great birthday for a musician, great at least until 1963. November 22 is the fest day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music. A performance of Britten’s opera Gloriana in the Royal Albert Hall was halted during the composer’s 50th birthday celebrations, when the new from Dallas reached London.

Benjamin Britten’s fame was established early. He as writing music for the BBC radio plays as a very young man. His opera Peter Grimes entered the standard repertoire immediately. You can hear it sung in Britten’s English, or in French, Russian, Japanese or Korean, wherever you happen to be in the world. The protagonist is a haunted fisherman, but the lead character in this opera is the sea itself:

I would say Britten had the best ear for sound of any other British composer. You can hear the danger and the loneliness of the sea. He was unafraid to incorporate eclectic orchestrations and gamelan music for color. He took a well-known tune by Henry Purcell and made it his own, later deconstructing it for The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra

During the forty years of his public life , Britten was enormously prolific. Most of his large-scale pieces, vocal or not are played today.  the  Sinfonia da Requiem, Spring Symphony,  and Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge are worth knowing better. As is his final work, the dramatic cantata Phaedra, written for Dame Janet Baker a few months before his death.

This post is barely a beginning of what I want to say about Benjamin Britten: I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon with more.