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01Britten, The Boy From Lowestoft20131118, becomes the enfant terrible of British music.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he initially saw himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Born in Lowestoft on St Cecilia's Day (the patron saint of music) on November 22 1913, the son of a dentist and a doting mother, Britten soon demonstrated prodigious musical gifts. Composing from at least the age of six, Britten would often mine his early manuscripts for inspiration. As a boy, Britten managed to impress the composer Frank Bridge, who took him on as a pupil (and to whom he payed tribute in his Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge). Later, Britten would enter the Royal College of Music, to be taught composition by John Ireland and piano by Arthur Benjamin.

At the age of 19 Britten delighted his dying father with the prospect of having one of his compositions played on the BBC. 'Son, how does it feel?' asked his father.

By 1936, Britten had a number of published works to his name. Now employed to write film music for the innovative GPO film unit, he was introduced to the dazzling presence of poet WH Auden while working on films about postage stamps or coal trucks. Their collaborations for film were adventurous; even more daring was the song cycle they devised, reflecting man's relationship with the animal kingdom. With Our Hunting Fathers Britten truly felt that he had written his Opus 1. Unfortunately, the critics and the orchestra rather wished he hadn't bothered!

Donald Macleod focuses on Britten's early years.

Britten, the boy from Lowestoft, becomes the enfant terrible of British music.

02Britten In The Late 1930s20131119Donald Macleod focuses on Britten's work in America.

Britten sails off to America for a new life with his companion Peter Pears

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he would initially see himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Amid the national influenza outbreak, illness struck Britten's sister, and subsequently his mother. Although his sister would survive, his mother would not and her death both closed one chapter, and opened another in his life. Her legacy allowed him to buy the Old Mill at Snape, and it was there he completed work on his uncharacteristically dazzling Piano Concerto ? a popular success, but a critical failure.

As Britten came to terms with his homosexuality, he sought companionship among members of his own sex, meeting Peter Pears and a wider circle of friends.

The complexity of Britten's own romantic attachments is demonstrated by his settings of poems by Rimbaud, in Les Illuminations. And as Donald McLeod observes he was also capable of a popular touch, setting Auden's thought-provoking lyrics on the nature of love in a set of Cabaret Songs.

From good friends, flatmates and travel companions, Britten and Pears become lovers whilst in America. But they enjoyed mixed fortunes there, and feeling homesick they decide to head back to the UK in 1942. Aboard the ship home Britten completes his last collaboration with Auden: Hymn to St Cecilia.

03The Return To Wartime Britain20131120Donald Macleod focuses on Britten and his companion Peter Pears's return to their homeland

Donald Macleod focuses on Britten and his companion Peter Pears's return to their homeland

Reviled as a pacifist, Britten ends the War finding critical favour.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he would initially see himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Returning to their homeland, Britten and Peers faced possible vilification, arrest and imprisonment for their pacifist beliefs. Instead, they managed to achieve recognition as conscientious objectors. They were free to perform. Moreover, they were able to perform some of the exciting compositions Britten had completed whilst in the US.

At last Britten began to achieve critical approval for both his Michelangelo Sonnets and his Serenade for tenor and horn - featuring the talents of a promising young horn player, Dennis Brain, whom Britten had encountered in the RAF orchestra. Britten completed his project to write an opera, the tale of Peter Grimes which was so improbably successful that even bus conductors are heard to talk about it! In July 1945 Britten accompanied Yehudi Menuhin in a series of recitals among the survivors of Belsen. One response to that experience, about which he spoke very seldom, was his 2nd String Quartet. In the same year, Britten would also create a lasting and invigorating legacy for young people with his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Originally a film score, it is now enjoyed in its own right.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he would initially see himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

At last Britten began to achieve critical approval for both his Michelangelo Sonnets and his Serenade for tenor and horn - featuring the talents of a promising young horn player, Dennis Brain, whom Britten had encountered in the RAF orchestra. Britten completed his project to write an opera, the tale of Peter Grimes which was so improbably successful that even bus conductors are heard to talk about it! In July 1945 Britten accompanied Yehudi Menuhin in a series of recitals among the survivors of Belsen. One response to that experience, about which he spoke very seldom, was his 2nd String Quartet. In the same year, Britten would also create a lasting and invigorating legacy for young people with his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Originally a film score, it is now enjoyed in its own right.

04Britten During The 1950s20131121Donald Macleod on how Britten became the foremost composer of opera in English.

Donald Macleod on how Britten became the foremost composer of opera in English.

Britten becomes the foremost composer of opera in English, and establishes his own festival.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he would initially see himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Britten has become almost synonymous with Aldburgh, after moving to the coastal town and making it his home. There he and Pears conceived the idea of a small-scale festival to perform works by Britten and other composers. Among these would be chamber operas, such as the comic masterpiece Albert Herring.

Although, financially, Britten was better off than ever, he had more than his share of critical failures. As Donald explains, it was in a state of depression in 1949 that he struggled to write his Spring Symphony, the first movement somehow echoing the bleakness of his mood.

Always a man with several projects on the go, it was while working on the score for Billy Budd that Britten wrote the exquisitely beautiful second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, for the voices of Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier. Sadly, Ferrier succumbed to cancer before she was able to record the work for posterity.

Donald ends today's story with the strange tale of abused children and a ghostly presence. With the Turn of the Screw, Britten discovered a future film star of the 1960s (David Hemmings), and took Venice by storm.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he would initially see himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain, introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Always a man with several projects on the go, it was while working on the score for Billy Budd that Britten wrote the exquisitely beautiful second canticle, Abraham and Isaac, for the voices of Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier. Sadly, Ferrier succumbed to cancer before she was able to record the work for posterity.

Donald ends today's story with the strange tale of abused children and a ghostly presence. With the Turn of the Screw, Britten discovered a future film star of the 1960s (David Hemmings), and took Venice by storm.

05 LASTFinal Years And Late Masterpieces20131122His health in decline, Britten produces his final masterpieces.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he initially saw himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain; introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

By the late 1950s and the early 1960s Britten's pacifism was no longer a particularly eccentric position to hold. A supporter of the Peace Movement, Britten was delighted to be commissioned to write a piece to mark the opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. That piece, the War Requiem, would become one of the fastest selling classical records of all time! One inspiration throughout the 1960s was cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Despite linguistic differences (they spoke in 'Aldeburgh Deutsch') they got on famously well, and among other things Britten composed a Cello Symphony in Rostropovich's honour.

Dogged by increasingly frail health, Britten struggled to complete his final opera, Death in Venice. And yet, despite increasingly insistent intimations of his own mortality, his last years witnessed an extraordinary burst of creativity, including a chamber cantata, Phaedra.

Donald concludes this week's look at the life and music of Benjamin Britten with the last two movements of one of the last pieces he completed: his third string quartet.

From relatively humdrum origins in the coastal fishing port of Lowestoft, Benjamin Britten rose to become the pre-eminent British composer of his day, celebrated not just in his native land, but internationally. Although he initially saw himself as an outsider to the British musical establishment, he would rapidly transform music-making in Britain; introducing new sounds, and insisting on the highest standards of performance. By the time of his death in 1976, in the arms of his long-term companion Peter Pears, Britten was celebrated as a composer of operas, string quartets and song cycles, and of a War Requiem that touched the hearts of millions of listeners around the world.

Donald concludes this week's look at the life and music of Benjamin Britten with the last two movements of one of the last pieces he completed: his third string quartet.