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A Composer for All Seasons: Benjamin Britten

Along with today being Thanksgiving, it is also English composer Benjamin Britten’s 105th birthday. Around this time of year—and especially this year, as it is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I—it is common to hear performances of his War Requiem (BRM36125). That piece, premiered in 1962, was written as a commission for the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral, as the older cathedral was essentially destroyed in 1940 during World War II bombings. Britten, an avowed pacifist, used the poetry of Wilfred Owens, an enlisted soldier who died shortly before the Armistice in 1918.

The War Requiem has arguably become Britten’s best-known composition; however it is one of his later compositions. Here are some earlier famous pieces you may be interested in:

Black and white photograph of Benjamin Britten, half-length portrait, conducting, facing right.

Benjamin Britten, half-length portrait, conducting, facing right. Photograph. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a45966

Peter Grimes (1945): This opera is based on George Crabbe’s collection of poems entitled The Borough, which takes place in a fictional town similar to the one in which Britten grew up. We have lectures about this opera by Albert Innaurato (DBM01453), Ann Thompson (DBM03216), and by Michael Barclay (DBM00789). We also have the libretto available in braille (BRM24865) and large print (LPM00575).

A Ceremony of Carols (1942): This choral piece is intended for Christmastide, and originally was written for children’s treble choir and harp. We have a treble arrangement available at BRM30503 and an SATB version available at BRM35958 (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass, Harp).

The Turn of the Screw (1954): This is one of Britten’s chamber operas, with the libretto by Myfawny Piper based on Henry James’ novel of the same name. We have a lecture about this opera by Ann Thompson (DBM03009) and a braille libretto available at BRM30061.

Billy Budd (1951): Billy Budd’s libretto was written by E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, based on the novel by Herman Melville of the same name. We have two lectures about this opera, one by Ann Thompson (DBM01711) and one by Michael Barclay (DBM00788). We also have two versions of the libretto at BRM30060 and BRM25699.

Friday Afternoons (1935): This piece is written for a children’s choir, and Britten specifically had the students at the Clive School (where Britten’s brother was headmaster) in mind. A few year ago, shortly after the centennial of Britten’s birth, we wrote a blog post about the new transcription we had just received. Be sure to check out that transcription at BRM35879.

Gloriana (1953): For the British royal family fans out there, this one may interest you! This opera’s libretto is based on the history and relationship of Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. It was premiered during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. It was not considered one of Britten’s successes, and fell out of popularity until the end of the 20th century. We have the libretto available in large print at LPM00575 and a suite of choral dances at BRM22989.

We have much more by Britten in the collection, including many individual songs for voice and piano. Please contact us by email ([email protected]) or by phone (1-800-424-8567, ext. 2) BARD if you are interested in any of these titles! Or log onto BARD and download them for yourself. Happy Thanksgiving!

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