In This Article Benjamin Britten

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Genre Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Sources
  • Early Critical Assessments

Music Benjamin Britten
by
Heather Wiebe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0005

Introduction

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) was a British composer, performer, and conductor. To some extent, he resisted the avant-garde musical trends of his time in favor of a more accessible language and a goal of musical communication. His commitment to opera reveals an aesthetic stance slightly askew from the modernist establishment, but his operas, particularly Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and The Turn of the Screw (1954) are some of the rare postwar works to find a secure place in the international repertory. He is also well known for his song cycles, including Serenade (1943) and Nocturne (1958), which count among the many works he wrote for Peter Pears; and for his choral music, particularly the War Requiem (1961). In addition, he produced film and incidental music, music for children, and instrumental music (including cello suites, string quartets, and orchestral music). He was also active as a music administrator, co-founding the Aldeburgh Festival. Britten’s life and career seem governed by a set of central tensions. One is between his commitment to communication and his attraction to some experimental elements (for instance in Curlew River). Although Britten was firmly ensconced in Aldeburgh and was drawn to ideas of local community, his life is marked by incessant tours and performances abroad (as far as Japan and India), an aborted emigration to the United States, and significant friendships with musical figures from around the world. His leftist commitments and his musical populism are complicated by a certain social and cultural elitism. Finally, although Britten successfully inserted himself into the centers of British cultural power, he, in many ways, occupied positions at the margins: as a gay man, as a professional musician, and as a pacifist.

General Overviews

A short and critically insightful survey of Britten’s life and works is provided by Brett. For discussions of individual works, Kennedy 2001, Evans 1979, and Palmer 1984 are essential starting points. The essay collections by Cooke 1999 and Walker 2009 represent more recent critical perspectives on Britten’s music but are more selective in their coverage. Mark 1995 provides the most substantial discussion of Britten’s early music, including juvenilia, while Whittall 1990 provides an insightful survey of Britten’s style.

  • Brett, Philip, et al. “Britten, Benjamin.” Grove Music Online.

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    An overview of the life and works, including a works list and bibliography, with an incisive discussion of central issues in Britten’s music. Available by subscription.

  • Cooke, Mervyn, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    Provides a sampling of recent Britten research, as of 1999. Some of this material appears in less condensed versions elsewhere, but chapters focusing on the often-overlooked documentaries and instrumental music are essential. For more systematic coverage in a similar vein, refer to Palmer 1984.

  • Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. London: Dent,. 1979.

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    Still the major analytical survey of Britten’s works, although slightly dated in some respects.

  • Kennedy, Michael. Britten. Rev. ed. The Master Musicians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    An essential survey with short discussions of all the works, arranged chronologically. Works list also included.

  • Mark, Christopher. Early Benjamin Britten: A Study of Stylistic and Technical Evolution. New York: Garland Press, 1995.

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    An analysis of the early works up to 1942, including Britten’s juvenilia. A much-condensed version of some of this material appears in Cooke 1999.

  • Palmer, Christopher, ed. The Britten Companion. London: Faber & Faber, 1984.

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    A valuable collection of short essays covering Britten’s works, not replaced by the more recent but less systematic Cambridge Companion. A short set of introductory essays is followed by essays on the works organized by genre, allowing discussion of music (e.g., the Purcell realizations, The Beggar’s Opera, theater works for children, and string quartets) left out or treated marginally in other surveys.

  • Walker, Lucy, ed. Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on His Life and Work. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2009.

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    Published under the auspices of the Britten-Pears Foundation, this ecletic collection of essays originates from a small conference and is meant, as the title suggests, to introduce the perspectives of a new generation of scholars.

  • Whittall, Arnold. The Music of Britten and Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    An analytical survey of Britten’s and Tippett’s evolving styles, addressing most of Britten’s works, organized chronologically.

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