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Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the east coast of England, on 22 November 1913. Although he was already composing vigorously as a child, he nonetheless felt the importance of some solid guidance and in 1928 turned to the composer Frank Bridge; two years later he went to the Royal College of Music in London, studying with Arthur Benjamin, Harold Samuel and John Ireland. While still a student, he wrote his ‘official’ Op. 1, the _Sinfonietta_ for chamber ensemble, and the _Phantasy Quartet_ for oboe and string trio, and in 1936 he composed _Our Hunting Fathers_, an ambitious song-cycle for soprano and orchestra, which confirmed Britten’s virtuosic vocal and instrumental technique. He was already earning his living as a composer, having joined the GPO (Post Office) Film Unit the previous year; the collaboration he began there with the poet W. H. Auden was to prove an important one throughout his career.

Britten found himself in the United States at the outset of World War Two and stayed there for three more years, returning to Britain in 1942. In America he produced a number of important works, among them the orchestral _Sinfonia da Requiem_, the song-cycle _Les Illuminations_ for high voice and strings, and his _Violin Concerto_. With the opera _Paul Bunyan_ he also made his first essay in a genre that would be particular important to him.

Back in Britain, where as a conscientious objector he was excused military service, he began work on the piece that would establish him beyond question as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation – the opera _Peter Grimes_, premiered to an ecstatic reaction on 7 June 1945. _The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell_ – a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire – was first performed in the following year. Indeed, Britten now composed one major work after another, among them the operas _The Rape of Lucretia_ (1946), _Albert Herring_ (1947), _Billy Budd_ (1951), _Gloriana_ (1953), _The Turn of the Screw_ (1954), _Noye’s Fludde_ (1957), _A Midsummer Night’s Dream_ (1960), _Owen Wingrave_ (1970–71) and _Death in Venice_ (1971–73); the _Nocturne_ for tenor and orchestra (1958), the _War Requiem_ (1961–62), a _Cello Symphony_ (1963) for Rostropovich and his orchestral _Suite on English Folk Tunes_ (1974).

Britten’s importance in post-War British cultural life was enhanced by his founding of the English Opera Group in 1946 and the Aldeburgh Festival two years later. His career as a composer was matched by his outstanding ability as a performer: he was both a refined pianist and a spontaneous and fluent conductor – his Mozart was particularly highly esteemed. Britten’s later career was clouded by bouts of ill-health, culminating in heart disease. He never fully recovered from open-heart surgery in 1973, and died on 4 December 1976, at the age of 63, a few months after being appointed a life peer – the first composer ever to know that honour.

Benjamin Britten is published by Boosey & Hawkes.

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This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes

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