The Gazette hall of fame: Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was one of the most significant figures of 20th century classical music. He composed a range of celebrated opera, orchestral and chamber works.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on 22 November 1913. He was introduced to music at an early age, as his mother, Edith, was a keen amateur singer. At school, he played the viola, and was discovered at the age of 11 by the famous composer Frank Bridge.

Bridge was to play an important role in the young Britten’s life, giving him a technical foundation on which to base his creativity, as well as introducing him to the works of a wide range of composers.

When he was 17, Britten’s talent earned him a place at the Royal College of Music to study piano and composition, under the tutelage of Harold Samuel, Arthur Benjamin and John Ireland. In just 3 years, he won the Sullivan Prize for composition, the Cobbett Prize for chamber music, and was twice winner of the Ernest Farrar Prize for composition.

Frank Bridge kept a close eye on Britten, influencing bosses at the BBC’s music department to give him a role writing scores for documentary films. His first was in 1935 for The King's Stamp. He composed prolifically between 1935 and 1937, writing 40 scores for theatre, cinema and radio.

Britten emigrated to the US in 1939, but his passion for England compelled him to return in 1942. A staunch pacifist, he immediately applied for recognition as a conscientious objector without exception, which was granted. This allowed him to compose one of his best-known works, the opera Peter Grimes (1945), which opened to wide critical acclaim.

Following the success of Peter Grimes, Britten composed A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946). This is one of the best-known pieces by the composer, and is often associated with children’s music education, alongside Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Britten’s next major opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), signalled a return to the richness and emotional directness of his pre-Grimes music, reaching a climax in the War Requiem (1962). This is based partly on the traditional requiem mass, and partly on the poems of Wilfred Owen.

Britten received many prizes and honours throughout his lifetime, including becoming a Companion of Honour in 1953 (Gazette issue 39863), and a member of the Order of Merit in 1965 (Gazette issue 43610). The Order of Merit was his most cherished honour; only 24 people are allowed to be members at any one time. Since its creation in 1902, only two composers prior to Britten had received this honour: Elgar in 1911 (Gazette issue 12365), and Vaughan Williams in 1935 (Gazette issue 34166). 

In June 1976, age 62, Britten was awarded a life peerage (Gazette issue 46919), and a month later was made Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the county of Suffolk (Gazette issue 46954). However, just 5 months later, Britten was to die of heart failure. He was laid to rest in the churchyard of Aldeburgh Parish Church.

In 2013, a 50 pence coin was designed to celebrate the centenary of Britten’s birth. Details of the design, in gold, silver and cupronickel, were published in The Gazette on December 2012 (Gazette issue 60356).