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Britten, Benjamin (1913-1976)  
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Benjamin Britten was the most prominent and highly honored British composer of the twentieth century, perhaps the most acclaimed of his countrymen in classical music since Henry Purcell in the seventeenth century. Such recognition is not, however, without considerable irony; many of Britten's greatest works were inspired by his long-time personal and professional relationship with his lover, tenor Peter Pears, and created within the context of a society in which homosexual acts were criminal.

Edward Benjamin Britten (later Baron Britten of Aldeburgh) was born November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Although his boyhood was by all accounts ordinary, he showed a prodigious aptitude for music and began playing the piano and composing pieces while still a small child.

He had already completed a number of works when, at age thirteen, he presented them to composer Frank Bridge, whom he met at a local concert performance. Bridge was suitably impressed by Britten's work to accept the boy as a private student. As a childless couple, Bridge and his wife came to regard Britten as a sort of adopted son, and one of the young composer's early notable works, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), is a tribute to his mentor.

In 1930, Britten entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition and piano. When the RCM denied him permission to study with Alban Berg in Vienna, he left without completing a degree. In the same year, his choral work A Boy Was Born was chosen for a performance by the BBC singers. It was on this occasion that he first met, albeit briefly, Peter Pears, a member at that time of this ensemble.

The two were not actually acquainted until 1936, but within the following year they began a personal and professional collaboration that would endure for nearly forty years until Britten's death. A considerable number of Britten's subsequent works feature the tenor voice and were written with Pears as the intended interpreter.

During the mid- to late-1930s Britten began writing music for stage and film, and he also worked collaboratively with W. H. Auden, whose poems he set to music in two song cycles, Our Hunting Fathers (1936) and On This Island (1937).

In May 1939, as World War II became inevitable, Britten and Pears left England, following fellow pacifists Auden and Christopher Isherwood to the United States, which was still officially a neutral nation. They settled first in New York, where Auden maintained a bohemian ménage, and subsequently in Southern California.

While in New York, Britten collaborated with Auden on Paul Bunyan (1941), an operetta based on the American folklore character. The sojourn in America saw the composition of two song cycles for tenor voice that were settings of works by homosexual poets, Arthur Rimbaud's Les illuminations (for voice and strings, 1939) and Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (for tenor and piano, 1940), as well as Sinfonia da Requiem (1940), in memory of the composer's parents.

While in California in 1941, Britten read E. M. Forster's essay about British poet George Crabbe whose lengthy verse narrative The Borough (1810) detailed the hardships of life in a small fishing port. Crabbe, like Britten, was a native of Suffolk. One of the episodes in The Borough relates the misfortunes of a visionary social outcast, a fisherman named Peter Grimes who is accused of causing the deaths of two young apprentices, a matter with significant undertones. The story served as the inspiration for Britten's first full-scale opera.

In 1942, after the United States had entered the war, Britten and Pears returned to Britain, working on Peter Grimes during their passage across the war-ravaged North Atlantic. They declared themselves conscientious objectors upon their return, a stand that entailed considerable social ostracism during the war years.

Peter Grimes was first performed on June 7, 1945 by Sadler's Wells Opera Company, London, with Pears in the title role. The following year marked its American premiere at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where it was conducted by the young Leonard Bernstein.

In the wake of Peter Grimes, opera became the genre with which Britten was most closely associated, and virtually all his operas featured Pears either in the lead or in a secondary role.

Albert Herring (1947), in which Pears created the role of the sexually repressed title character, was the first opera produced by the English Opera Group, a company Britten and Pears founded. Britten and Pears settled permanently in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk fishing village in which Peter Grimes was set, in 1948, the same year they established the annual Aldeburgh Festival, which continues to the present day.

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