Edward Benjamin Britten was born in the East Suffolk town of Lowestoft in 1913.
Britten was the youngest of four and showed particular skill in mathematics, but his passion was music. His first attempts at composing were made when he was five, although, as he later confessed: "it was the pattern on the paper which interested me."
At the age of seven Britten started piano lessons with a neighbor and at the age of ten he began to learn the viola. His viola teacher arranged a meeting with Frank Bridge and soon afterwards, Britten began composition lessons with him. As a child he produced a great many works, some of which were of a very high standard. Among them are various orchestral pieces including a symphony, works for chamber ensemble, suites for solo piano, drafts for Masses, the symphonic poem Chaos and Cosmos, and many songs.
In September 1928, Britten went to Gresham's School at Holt in Norfolk, where he continued to enjoy writing, performing, and listening to music at every opportunity. At sixteen Britten won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He studied composition with John Ireland, and piano with Arthur Benjamin. Although the training he received was a useful supplement to his work with Bridge, he was frustrated by a perceived lack of interest in the kind of music that he wished to write.
The choral work A Boy was Born was broadcast by the BBC in February 1934, gaining Britten recognition in musical circles as a composer of so much promise that his Phantasy quartet was chosen by the International Society for Contemporary Music for performance at their Festival in Florence that year. Later that year, he was signed as a composer for the music publishing house Boosey and Hawkes, and began work with the General Post Office Film Unit working on a series of documentary films by John Grierson. Britten began working with W. H. Auden, who supplied the narrative for some of the films. Their working relationship extended beyond the G.P.O.
The young composer had been devastated by his mother's death in 1937, but Edith Britten had left her son sufficient money to enable him to buy a converted old mill in the Suffolk village of Snape, on the river Alde. At the old mill he was host to many friends such as the composers Lennox Berkeley and Aaron Copland, the writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, as well as tenor Peter Pears, his life-time partner. The enormous success of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which was composed for the Boyd Neel Orchestra to perform at the 1937 Salzburg Festival, had increased Britten's national and international standing. However, in 1939 he and Peter Pears, frustrated by the lack of musical perception in England, followed Auden across the Atlantic, giving concerts in Canada before moving through the States, intending to reach Hollywood.
When war broke out in September 1939, Britten and Pears wanted to return to England but were unsuccessful until March 1942. Stranded in the United States, Britten and Auden collaborated on the operetta Paul Bunyan (1940), based on the American folk tale of a giant lumberjack. On a trip to California in 1941, Britten read an article on the English poet George Crabbe, planting the seed for what would eventually be Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes.
Peter Grimes, with a libretto supplied by Montagu Slater, was completed in February 1945 and premiered in June at the Sadler's Wells Theatre. The opera soon established itself as the most important opera by an English composer since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, written 250 years earlier. Opera had proved a costly undertaking and in order for future pieces to be readily produced and to succeed financially, Britten created the English Opera Group, a chamber company. Two quite different works, The Rape of Lucretia (1946) and Albert Herring (1947) were premiered by the EOG.
It was during an EOG tour that Pears suggested the creation of their own art and music festival. Such an event would encompass not only music but also poetry, drama, lectures and exhibitions of art and literature. By 1947 Britten had moved to a house in the nearby town of Aldeburgh. And in 1948, a week-long series of concerts, exhibitions and lectures was arranged and the first Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts took place. One of the works featured was Britten's new cantata Saint Nicolas.
Britten continued to compose prolifically and this decade testifies both to Britten's industry and his sense of responsibility as an artist in the international community. He collaborated with Crozier and E. M. Forster in 1951 on a large-scale opera, Billy Budd, to mark the Festival of Britain. The coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was the occasion that prompted Britten's next opera, Gloriana. Britten returned to chamber opera in 1954 with an adaptation of Henry James's story, The Turn of the Screw.
In 1955 Britten and Pears toured the East, where Britten was fascinated by the sound of the gamelan orchestra. The Eastern tour also influenced a song cycle written in 1957 for Pears and the guitarist Julian Bream.
Medieval drama and Shakespeare were the sources for Britten's next major vocal works. In 1959 Britten and Pears adapted the text of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the opera of that name, cutting away a third of the original play.
By the mid-1960s the Aldeburgh Festival had found a new, much larger, main concert venue. The Maltings was formally opened by the Queen at the beginning of the 20th Aldeburgh Festival. Two years later, a fire destroyed the building and by the next June the hall had been rebuilt and was ready for the Queen to return to re-open it.
Never afraid of a new challenge, Britten accepted a commission from the BBC to compose his first opera to be written specifically for television. Working with Myfanwy Piper, he adapted another Henry James story, Owen Wingrave.
For many years Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice had intrigued him as a possible opera plot, and in 1971 he set to work on this with Piper as his librettist. The opera was premiered at The Maltings during the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival. Pears, the opera's dedicatee, sang the demanding role of Aschenbach, but the composer was too frail to be present.
By 1973 Britten's health had deteriorated considerably. In the spring of that year he underwent open heart surgery, but this was not completely successful. His career as accompanist and conductor ceased completely, but with medical supervision and the help of devoted staff he was still able to compose. Final works include the Suite on English Folk Tunes in 1974, and the dramatic cantata Phaedra, written for Janet Baker in 1975.
In July 1976, after years of refusing a personal accolade, he now accepted 'for music' an honor from the Queen, who created him a Life Peer, 'Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk'. A few months later, in December 1976, he died at his home in Aldeburgh and was buried in the churchyard of the Aldeburgh Parish Church. Peter Pears and Imogene Holst, both co-founders of the Aldeburgh Festival, lie in adjacent graves.