100 Heroes: Benjamin Britten

The gay man who brought classical music into the modern age.

100 Heroes: Benjamin Britten

Born in 1913, Benjamin Britten was a composer, conductor, and pianist. He became a central figure of 20th-century British music.

After studying at the Royal College of Music in London, Britten first came to public attention with his choral works, but it was the premiere the opera Peter Grimes in 1945 that brought him international fame.

He went on to write 14 more operas over a career that spanned decades.

Recurring themes in his operas include the struggle of an outsider against a hostile society and the corruption of innocence.

Britten met Peter Pears - a celebrated singer - in 1937. Although they had to effectively conceal their relationship - as homosexuality was illegal at the time - they lived and worked together as a couple from then until their deaths.

It was noted by his contemporaries that Britten enjoyed working with young boys and often became infatuated with them. Notable examples include 13-year-old Piers Dunkerley - Britten was 20 when they met in 1934. David Hemmings and Michael Crawford, both of whom sang treble roles in his works in the 1950s, were also considered particular favourites. Britten was known to share beds with boys, and he was observed kissing boys and nude sunbathing with boys. No specific claims of sexually inappropriate behaviour were ever documented.

Britten died in 1976.

A visit to Aldeburgh

‘Time will not forget: The dead are witness, And fate is blind.’ Peter Grimes, 1945

The sun was shining for my visit to the English coastal town of Aldeburgh, but there was still a sense of foreboding in the grey, blustery sea. Standing on the pebble beach, it seemed as if there was no end to the dark, rolling waters that stretched as far as the eye could see.

This is the part of the world where composer Benjamin Britten was born in 1913. This is the part of the world that inspired his most famous works such as Peter Grimes (1945), and Billy Budd (1951). This is the part of the world where Britten and his partner Peter Pears made their home, established the Aldeburgh music festival, and the Snape Maltings Concert Hall.

I’d taken the train from London’s Liverpool Street station out to Ipswich, and then changed onto a single-carriage local train which rattled through the green Suffolk countryside to the town of Saxmundham. From there, I caught a taxi to the small seaside village of Aldeburgh and checked-in to the Brudenell Hotel. This is a smart, modern hotel with an unassailable position right on the pebble beach, in the heart of the village.

Staring out the window of my room, the ocean seemed so close that it almost felt as if you could reach out and touch it  -  like you were on a cruise ship in the middle of the sea. I slept soundly with the crashing of the waves providing a steady rhythm for my dreams.

A useful way to explore Aldeburgh, while also getting a sense of Britten’s world, is to follow the self-guided walking tour that has been branded as The Britten Trail. Maps can be downloaded from the tourist office website, but they’re also available at hotels and around the town.

One of the highlights of the walking trail is the ancient Moot Hall – the setting for the opening scene of Peter Grimes. The trail also takes you to the grassy graveyard of the Aldeburgh Parish Church, where Britten and Pears are buried side-by-side, their lives commemorated with simple headstones. You’ll also encounter the Scallop  –  inscribed with ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ from Peter Grimes  –  an evocative sculpture, designed by Maggi Hambling and erected in 2003.

From Aldeburgh, I took a taxi out to Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Built in the mid-nineteenth century for the roasting of barley, as part of the process of brewing beer, the maltings at Snape were one of the largest in the region until operations ceased in 1965. Seeing the potential of the sprawling complex of brick buildings, Britten converted the largest malthouse at Snape into a concert hall, with over 800 seats. Opening in 1967, this new venue delivered a much-needed expansion of capacity for the Aldeburgh Music Festival. I met with Marc Ernesti, from Aldeburgh Music, who gave me a tour of the impressive facilities that have grown to become a creative campus for rehearsal, education, and performance.

From what was begun by Britten and Pears as an annual festival, Aldeburgh Music has grown to deliver an annual program of events, as well as artist development and education programs.

From Snape, I took a taxi across to The Red House on the outskirts of Aldeburgh  -  the house where Britten and Pears lived for many years, and which has now been transformed into an exhibition space and archive centre. I met with Kevin Gosling of the Britten-Pears Foundation, which manages the property and much of the couple’s legacy.

Britten hoarded vast amounts of material from his childhood and his many creative endeavours, and the exhibition that has been curated from the archives is a fascinating glimpse into the life and creative process of the composer. It’s particularly exciting to be able to view Britten’s studio  –  where many of his works were brought to life  -  and the modernist library which hosted rehearsals and recitals. Both spaces have now been fully restored, and there’s a real sense that Britten and Pears have just momentarily stepped out of the room.

Aldeburgh is worth the journey. It’s rare to be able to experience a place that has such a direct connection with a composer of the stature of Britten  –  you can feel his presence, see his inspiration, and appreciate the high regard in which he was held by his local community.

‘I am native. Rooted here.’ Peter Grimes, 1945

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