'I write music for human beings'

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’. He composed:

  • 16 operas, including 3 Church Parables and operas for children.
  • One full-length ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas.
  • 15 song-cycles
  • More than 60 folk songs
  • Over 730 pieces attempted (many of them complete) before the age of 18, including full-length symphonies and song collections
  • Nearly 80 works of incidental music for film, radio and theatre
  • Plus chamber music, choral music and works for orchestra