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Britten, Benjamin (1913-1976)

Benjamin Britten

born: 22 November 1913
died: 4 December 1976
country: United Kingdom

Britten's status as one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century is now secure among professional critics. In the 1930s he made a conscious effort to set himself apart from the English musical mainstream, which he regarded as complacent, insular and amateurish. Many critics of the time, in return, distrusted his facility, cosmopolitanism and admiration for composers, such as Mahler, Berg, and Stravinsky, not considered appropriate models for a young English musician.

For many musicians, however, Britten's technique, broad musical and human sympathies and ability to treat the most traditional of musical forms with freshness and originality place him at the head of composers of his generation.

One of Britten's best known works is The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), which was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. It has the subtitle Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, and takes a melody from Henry Purcell's Abdelazar as its central theme. Britten gives individual variations to each of the sections of the orchestra, starting with the woodwind, then the string instruments, the brass instruments and finally the percussion. Britten then brings the whole orchestra together again in a fugue before restating the theme to close the work. The original film's spoken commentary is often omitted in concert performances and recordings.

Britten's Church Music contains 'classics' such as Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for St Matthew's Northampton (where the Vicar was Revd Walter Hussey) as well as repertoire that is more recherche (like A Hymn to the Virgin, Missa Brevis for Boys voices and Organ). One of Britten's solo works that has an indisputably central place in the repertoire of its instrument is his Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar (1963). This work is typically spare in his late style, and shows the depth of his life-long admiration for Elizabethan lute songs. The theme of the work, John Dowland's Come, Heavy Sleep, emerges in complete form at the close of eight variations, each variation based on some feature, frequently transient or ornamental, of the song or its lute accompaniment.

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