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Benjamin Britten (22 Nov. 1913 - 4 Dec. 1976) is considered the most distinguished English composer working in the mid-20th century. He won a significant international reputation while remaining thoroughly English in inspiration, a feat that his immediate predecessors had been unable fully to achieve.


Britten won a triumph in 1945 with his opera Peter Grimes, first staged when Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London reopened after the Second World War. The aspirations of the central character, the fisherman Peter Grimes, a man at odds with the community in which he lives, are frustrated by a combination of social pressure and sheer chance, leading to his suicide. The drama is set against the background of the sea, in various moods, summarised in the Four Sea Interludes (8.557196) that form an evocative piece of concert repertoire. Britten’s subsequent operas include works on a smaller scale for his English Opera Group: The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring (8.660107-08) and The Turn of the Screw. Billy Budd and the coronation opera Gloriana were followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the television opera Owen Wingrave, and the remarkable operatic version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. His three church parables draw inspiration from Japan and from their medieval setting. All these works constitute a very significant element in international dramatic and operatic repertoire. An early collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden, Paul Bunyan, was staged in New York in 1941, to be revised in 1974 for publication.

Orchestral Music

The best known of all Britten’s orchestral music must be the Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell (more generally known under its popular title The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra)(8.557200), a work that is both a tribute to the great 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell and a useful teaching piece. Lachrymae, subtitled ‘Reflections on a Theme of Dowland’, is a tribute to a still earlier predecessor, the lutenist John Dowland; arranged by the composer shortly before his death from its original viola and piano version(8.573136), it is immensely moving. The early Matinées Musicales, based on the music of Rossini, is an attractive piece, and the Simple Symphony (8.557205) for string orchestra, based on tunes written by the composer in childhood, is a useful element in string-orchestra repertoire. Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, written in 1937, serve as a brilliant tribute to his teacher, and his Piano Concerto (8.557197) and Violin Concerto (8.557198) come from the same period. His Cello Symphony was written in 1963 for his friend, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Vocal and Choral Music

Britten was strongly influenced in his music and in his life by the tenor Peter Pears. For him he wrote a quantity of songs, including the splendid Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and the evocative Nocturne (both incomparable settings of the words of various English poets)(8.557199), as well as several other settings of poets (from Michelangelo to Thomas Hardy) for tenor and piano. His folksong arrangements (8.557220-21 and 8.557222) have pleased a wide audience. Major choral works include the War Requiem (8.553558-59), which combines the text of the Latin Requiem with the war poems of Wilfred Owen and forms an expression of Britten’s own pacifism. His Ceremony of Carols, settings accompanied by solo harp and designed, as were some other works, for boys’ voices, marked his return from America to wartime England in 1942.

Chamber Music

Britten’s chamber music includes a Cello Sonata and three cello suites for his friend Rostropovich, a fine Suite for the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis, and a Nocturnal after John Dowland for the guitarist Julian Bream. Of his three numbered string quartets, Quartet No. 2 (8.553883) was written to mark the 250th anniversary of the death of Purcell, who provides the quartet’s inspiration.

Benjamin Britten Releases on Naxos

Naxos 8.573136
BRITTEN, B.: Reflections - Violin and Viola Works
M. Jones, Thwaite

Listen to an excerpt from No. 2. Going Down Hill on a Bicycle
(A Boy's Song)

Naxos 8.572600
BRITTEN, B.: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake / Tit for Tat / Folk Song Arrangements
R. Williams, Burnside

Naxos 8.557196
BRITTEN, B.: Sinfonia da Requiem / Gloriana Suite / Sea Interludes
London Symphony, Bedford


Naxos 8.557197
BRITTEN, B.: Piano Concerto / Johnson Over Jordan Suite
MacGregor, English Chamber Orchestra, Bedford


Naxos 8.557198
BRITTEN, B.: Violin Concerto / Canadian Carnival / Mont Juic
McAslan, English Chamber Orchestra, Bedford


Naxos 8.557199
BRITTEN, B.: Serenade, Op. 31 / Nocturne, Op. 60 / Phaedra, Op. 93
Langridge, Murray, Lloyd, Northern Sinfonia, English Chamber Orchestra, Bedford

Naxos 8.557200
BRITTEN, B.: Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (The) / Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge
English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony, Bedford


Naxos 8.557205
BRITTEN, B.: Simple Symphony / Temporal Variations / Suite on English Folk Tunes
Northern Sinfonia, Bedford


Naxos 8.557206
BRITTEN, B.: Illuminations (Les) / Our Hunting Fathers / Chansons Francaises
Lott, Bryn-Julson, English Chamber Orchestra, Bedford


Naxos 8.553558-59
BRITTEN, B.: War Requiem
Russell, Randle, Volle, BBC Scottish Symphony, Brabbins

Naxos 8.660107-08
BRITTEN, B.: Albert Herring
Soloists, Northern Sinfonia, Bedford

BBC Music Magazine

Naxos 8.572706
BRITTEN, B.: Scottish Songs (Complete)
Wilde, Wakeford, Norris

Naxos 8.557201
BRITTEN, B.: 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo / Holy Sonnets of J. Donne / Winter Words
Langridge, Bedford


Naxos 8.557202
BRITTEN, B.: Canticles Nos. 1-5 / The Heart of the Matter
Langridge, Bedford


Naxos 8.557220-21
BRITTEN, B.: Folk Song Arrangements, Vol. 1
Lott, Langridge, Johnson, Bonell


Naxos 8.557222
BRITTEN, B.: Folk Song Arrangements, Vol. 2
Langridge, Allen, BBC Singers, Northern Sinfonia, Bedford, Joly

Naxos 8.554791
BRITTEN, B.: Rejoice in the Lamb / Hymn to St. Cecilia / Missa Brevis, Op. 63
Cambridge St John’s College Choir, Robinson


Naxos 8.553883
BRITTEN, B.: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 / Three Divertimenti
Maggini Quartet

Naxos 8.554360
BRITTEN, B.: String Quartets No. 3 / Simple Symphony
Maggini Quartet


Naxos 8.556838
Various artists

Benjamin Britten as Performer

BBC Legends BBCL4134-2
BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Trio No. 5, "Ghost" / MOZART, W.A.: Piano Trio, K. 564 / BRIDGE, F.: Piano Trio No. 2
Britten, Menuhin, Gendron

BBC Legends BBCL4046-2
BRITTEN, B.: War Requiem
Giulini, Britten

BBC Legends BBCL4110-2
SCHUMANN, R.: Cello Concerto / DVORAK, A.: Cello Concerto
Rostropovich, Britten, Svetlanov

ICA Classics ICAD5083
MOZART, W.A.: Symphony No. 40 / BRITTEN, B.: Nocturne
Pears, Britten

ICA Classics ICAD5025
TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Rococo Variations / Pezzo capriccioso / Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Rostropovich, Britten

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