Friday, November 22, 2013 marks the hundredth birthday of British composer Benjamin Britten, OM, CH (1913-1976), who is known for revolutionizing opera and British art music in the twentieth century. Britten holds a special place in the heart of the Music Division at the Library of Congress, as we house the manuscripts of two of his most important works. His String Quartet no. 1 in D major, op. 25 (1941) was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress. The Coolidge String Quartet gave the east coast premiere of the work in the Coolidge Auditorium during the October 30, 1941 Founder’s Day Concert. This commission included Britten in a long legacy of composers from whom Mrs. Coolidge commissioned string quartets from, including Bartók, Bridge (Britten’s teacher), Milhaud, Schoenberg, Sessions and Webern.
The Library of Congress retains the holograph manuscript of Peter Grimes, op. 33 (1944-1945), arguably Britten’s most important opera. Peter Grimes was one of many tenor vehicles that Britten created for his partner and collaborator Peter Pears, CBE (1910-1986). Pears appeared at the Library of Congress on March 25, 1980 for a special tribute concert to his since deceased partner. He performed Britten’s Nocturne for tenor solo, seven obbligato instruments and string orchestra, Op. 60 (1958), as well as several of Britten’s folk song settings. The most touching moment of the evening was when Pears recited W.H. Auden’s poem “The Composer.” The poem can be understood as symbolically referencing the strong friendship between Auden, Britten and Pears—who have become known in history as a sort of triumvirate of cultural excellence in twentieth century Britain. [An archival recording of Pears reciting "The Composer" may be studied in the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress]
Nicholas Alexander Brown of the Music Division recently spoke with Chloe Veltman of Colorado Public Radio about the Britten Centennial and Benjy’s (Mrs. Coolidge’s pet name for Britten) connections to the Library of Congress. Traces of Britten’s life can be found throughout the Music Division’s collections, including his correspondence with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Serge Koussevitzky and Harold Spivacke (former chief of the Music Division).
Listen to the audio podcast here:
Excerpt of Peter Pears singing Britten’s Nocturne (Musiccrafters, Vincent Patterson, director). Recorded live, Coolidge Auditorium Library of Congress (March 25, 1980). Used with permission from Boosey & Hawkes, New York.