A Beginner’s Guide to Britten

11 January 2024

In Spring 2024, Welsh National Opera bring  Benjamin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, to stages in Wales and England. The tale of the doomed Aschenbach, originally told in the novella of the same name by Thomas Mann, boasts one of Britten’s most complex characters and scores, and draws from the composer’s own personal life in the telling of it.

Born in Suffolk in November 1913, Britten quickly took to music, receiving piano lessons from his mother until he was seven years old. At the age of 13, Britten was introduced to the composer Frank Bridge, who invited the young musician to take lessons with him in London. Britten’s musical education under Bridge informed the meticulous nature of his compositions, and Britten continued his musical studies during his schooling.

In 1937, Britten, a lifelong pacifist, became an active member of the Peace Pledge Union, and composed his first popular classic, Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

In 1937 he also met the tenor Peter Pears, with whom he formed a close bond, and by 1939 they had entered into a secret relationship. Against the backdrop of the of war in Europe, Britten and Pears travelled to North America, and remained there as artistic ambassadors until 1942, when they returned to Britain and applied for recognition as conscientious objectors.

Not long after, in 1944, Britten began work on his first large scale opera, Peter Grimes. Inspired by a fisherman’s story in George Crabbe’s epic poem The Borough (1810)  and set on the Suffolk coastline, Britten’s first opera would re-open Sadler’s Wells Opera Company’s home in London 1945, with Peter Pears in the titular role. The premiere was a success, and Peter Grimes has gone onto enjoy regular performances, and has remained one of the greatest English language operas ever written.

Britten went on to compose many operas, including The Rape of Lucretia, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream,Death in Venice, and Gloriana, which was written and performed to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Britten’s prolific compositions would ensure that he gained the reputation of the foremost British composer of his age. One of his best-known works, War Requiem, premiered in 1962, to commemorate the lives lost in both World Wars.

Death in Venice became Britten’s magnum opus , and alongside his earlier work, tells the story of an ostracised  outsider, alone within an unwelcoming society. It highlights the development of Britten’s compositions, with uses of atonalism and gamelan instruments, as well as the success of his artistic collaboration with Welsh librettist, Myfanwy Piper.

Death in Venice was to be Britten’s final opera, as shortly after he’d began his composition, Britten was advised that an urgent heart operation was necessary if he was to prolong his life. The operation was successful, and he continued to compose until late in his life, although his playing career was over. Benjamin Britten died on 4 December 1976, at the age of 63. Although he was offered burial at Westminster Abbey, Britten declined in favour of a burial at Aldeburgh Parish Church, so that he might lie in rest beside Peter Pears. 

This Spring, Welsh National Opera tour a brand-new production of Death in Venice, directed by Olivia Fuchs (The Makropulos Affair).  Experience Britten’s final and rarely performed opera , and join us for a performance in Cardiff, Llandudno, Southampton, Oxford, and Bristol.