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Britten, Benjamin (1913-1976)  
 
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Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, although he was engaged in administration of the festival, Britten nonetheless continued to compose prodigiously and was simultaneously active as conductor, with a varied repertory of his own works as well as those of other composers.

The opera Billy Budd, with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier after Herman Melville's story, premiered at Covent Garden, London, in December 1951. The opera, which is unique inasmuch as it has an all-male cast, presents a story, however circumspect, of shipboard homosexual panic.

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Attracted to the handsome Billy, the villainous master-at-arms Claggart enacts his desires by systematically attempting to destroy the young sailor. After Billy accidentally kills his nemesis, he is hanged for his murder, despite the affection that Captain Vere, the ship's commander, and the other sailors feel for the young man.

Because the slightly-built Pears lacked the physique to play the title role, the character Billy was written (implausibly, according to some critics) for baritone voice, and the part of Captain Vere, which was assigned to Pears, was made more prominent than it was in Melville's text.

Britten's next opera, Gloriana (1953) was written for the celebrations on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Its libretto was by William Plomer, after Lytton Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex. Britten was consequently awarded the title of Companion of Honour, but the opera did not prove a critical success.

Plomer, however, continued to collaborate with Britten, and provided the libretti for the composer's three "Parables for Church Performance," Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son (1968).

Britten also composed two operas based on works by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Owen Wingrave (1970), and also set William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night's Dream (1960) as an opera.

During this highly productive period, Britten composed a number of major non-operatic works as well. As befits Britten's pacifist beliefs, his War Requiem, arguably his greatest choral work, combines elements of the traditional Latin mass with passages from the anti-war poetry of Wilfred Owen. This moving piece was first performed in 1962, at the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, built on the site of the venerable medieval edifice that was completely destroyed by a German air raid in 1940.

Also notable is the Symphony in D Major for Cello and Orchestra (1963), which he wrote for his friend, Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.

Britten was appointed to the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth in 1965.

Britten's last great operatic triumph was Death in Venice (1973), based on Thomas Mann's novella. The work delineates the decline of the middle-aged critic Aschenbach (a role created by Pears) as he becomes increasingly obsessed with Tadzio, a young boy he loves from afar.

Earlier in 1973, Britten had undergone open-heart surgery to replace a defective cardiac valve. The surgery left him an invalid for the remainder of his life, yet he recovered sufficiently to attend the first performance of his final opera.

In 1976, Britten was awarded a life peerage by the Queen and given the title Baron Britten of Aldeburgh. His poor health made it impossible for him ever to take his seat in the House of Lords. He died of heart failure on December 4, 1976, in the arms of Peter Pears, at their home in Aldeburgh.

Britten left an extensive body of compositions comprising operas, choral works, symphonies, song cycles, concerti for piano and violin, chamber music, and numerous miscellaneous pieces.

Among the better known are the Simple Symphony (1925), Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942), Serenade (for tenor, horn, and strings, 1943), and The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1945). His last major work, Phaedra, a song cycle composed for contralto Dame Janet Baker, had its first performance shortly before his death.

Patricia Juliana Smith

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arts >> Overview:  Music: Classical

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arts >> Overview:  Opera

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literature >> Auden, W. H.

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arts >> Bernstein, Leonard

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literature >> Forster, E. M.

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arts >> Hough, Stephen

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Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

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The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

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Best known for his genius in art and architecture, Michelangelo was also an accomplished author of homoerotic poetry.

arts >> Pears, Peter

Highly respected British tenor Sir Peter Pears was the life partner of composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote leading roles in many of his operas for him.

literature >> Plomer, William

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arts >> Poulenc, Francis

One of the first openly gay composers, Francis Poulenc became one of the most thoughtful composers of serious music in the twentieth century.


    Bibliography
   

Blyth, Alan. Remembering Britten. London: Hutchinson, 1981.

Brett, Philip, ed. Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Britten, Beth. My Brother Benjamin. Bourne End: Kensal Press, 1986.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.

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

Cooke, Mervyn, and Philip Reed, eds. Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Evans, John, Philip Reed, and Paul Wilson, eds. A Britten Source Book. Aldeburgh: The Britten-Pears Library, 1987.

Evans, Peter. The Music of Benjamin Britten. London: Dent, 1989.

Headington, Christopher. Britten. London: Omnibus, 1996.

Kennedy, Michael. Britten. London: Dent, 1993.

Mitchell, Donald, ed. Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

_____. Britten and Auden in the Thirties. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.

_____, and John Evans, eds. Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976: A Pictorial Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1978.

_____, and Philip Reed, eds. Letters from a Life: Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. 2 vols. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Oliver, Michael. Benjamin Britten. London: Phaidon, 1996.

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

White, Eric Walter. Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas. London: Faber and Faber, 1983.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Britten, Benjamin  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 26, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/britten_b.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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