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Britten's music

'I write music for human beings'


Image: Britten showing local schoolboys how to play slung mugs to sound like raindrops in Noye's Fludde, 1958. Photo by Kurt Hutton. Benjamin Britten wrote some of the most appealing classical music of the twentieth century. As a boy he began by setting favourite poems to be sung by family and friends. Later, his life partner, Peter Pears, was a singer who provided inspiration for almost four decades.

So it is not surprising that Britten is best known for his music for the voice: choral works, songs and song cycles, and – above all - a series of operas among the most engaging ever written. His first success in this genre, Peter Grimes, revived opera in English.

Britten was also a master of orchestral writing, as his two most familiar works, the Four Sea Interludes and Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, make clear. He was equally committed to writing music for children and amateur performers as he was for leading soloists of the day such as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

From the outset, Britten was the modern composer who did not want modern music to be just for ‘the cultured few’, and aimed always to be ‘listenable-to’.




Audio 1: 'Ha! children, me thinkes my botte removes' from Noye's Fludde, op. 59. Owen Brannigan (Noye), Sheila Rex (Mrs Noye), English Opera Group Orchestra, an East Suffolk children's orchestra and chorus, Norman Del Mar (cond). Courtesy of Decca Classics and Boosey & Hawkes.

Audio 2: I Canto primo (sostenuto e largamente) from Cello Suite No. 1, op. 72. Mstislav Rostropovich (cello). Courtesy of Decca Classics and Faber Music.

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Suffolk schoolchildren playing slung mugs in the 1961 recording of Noye's Fludde

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Opening of Britten's First Cello Suite, played by Mstislav Rostropovich