Britten through the Decades

3 May 2024

Benjamin Britten may be best known to us at Welsh National Opera for his extraordinary body of operas, but Britten was also a prolific composer and produced masterly works in almost every musical form. Here are some of our Britten musical highlights,each chosen from a decade of his compositional life. 

1930s: A Hymn to the Virgin 

In 1930, Britten was merely a schoolboy of 16 when he wrote his choral anthem for a double chorus, A Hymn for the Virgin. Composed in the space of a single day from the bed of his school hospital wing, Britten’s two choirs sing in conversation with one another, with one in English and the other in Latin. The instant classic status of the work foreshadowed his many famous choral works to come including Hymn to St Cecilia, Rejoice in the Lamb, and A Ceremony of Carols.  

1940s: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings 

One of Britten’s major war-time compositions was his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a song cycle composed for his life-long partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and the world-class horn player Dennis Brain. Framed by the horn’s prologue and epilogue to the work, the piece showcases a selection of six poems by English poets meditating on the atmosphere of the night. The Serenade premiered at London’s Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943.  

1950s: The Prince of the Pagodas 

Britten’s only full-length ballet The Prince of the Pagodas was written for The Royal Ballet and was premiered on New Year’s Day 1957 at the Royal Opera House. Working with the choreographer John Cranko, the ballet’s story brought together elements from King Lear, Beauty and the Beast and the French fairytale The Green Serpent and incorporates gamelan musical influences that Britten had been inspired by on his tour to the Far East in 1955 and 1956.  

1960s: War Requiem 

The War Requiem was composed for the opening of the newly rebuilt Coventry Cathedral in 1962 following the destruction of the original medieval cathedral by Nazi air raids in 1940. Combining the Latin liturgical text of the requiem with nine poems by the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, the War Requiem calls for the enormous forces of a full orchestra and extended percussion, a boys’ and mixed chorus, and soprano, tenor and baritone soloists. It was one of Britten’s most commercially successful works, and the 1963 Decca recording sold over a quarter of a million copies in its first few months and was a recipient of two Grammy awards.  

1970s: String Quartet No 3 

Britten’s third and final string quartet was among the last of his completed instrumental works, written during an astonishing phase of creativity during his last years. He wrote the quartet’s last movement, titled La Serenissima, during his last stay in Venice, significantly, using material from his final opera, Death in Venice, in the recitativo. The quartet’s premiere took place just two weeks after Britten died on 4 December 1976 aged 63. 

Can’t make the last performance of WNO’scritically-acclaimed Death in Venice on 11 May? You can still get your Britten fix next year with WNO’s new production of Peter Grimes from April 2025.