November 22 is, among other things, the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. It is also, appropriately, the birthday of Benjamin Britten, who was born 100 years ago today in Suffolk, England. During a long and productive career that started when he was only a teenager, Britten established himself as Britain's greatest composer, and one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Along with more than a dozen operas to his credit, Britten penned masterpieces in almost every genre, including the War Requiem, Curlew River, the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, and the Ceremony of Carols, among many others.
During his lifetime, Britten never received the recognition he deserved, cast as retrograde by the ruling class of academic composers who saw music as little more than mathematical exercise, rather than an artform with the power to move, elevate, terrify, and inspire. Fortunately, Britten's reputation has rebounded in recent years, and everyone from John Adams to Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly cite him has a major influence. (See here for additional video encomiums to Britten.)
Although Britten lived nearly his entire adult life in Aldeburgh, on the east coast of England, he spent three formative years right here in NYC, in a brownstone on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights (see above photo). Britten moved there with his partner, Peter Pears, and collaborator W.H. Auden in 1939 to avoid the rising tide of World War II, composing his first opera, Paul Bunyan,and conceiving his second—the great Peter Grimes. Sadly, the house is no longer there—it was torn down in 1945 to make way for the BQE—but the street otherwise retains its quiet, colonial character. The appeal for someone accustomed to living near the water isn't hard to imagine. (You can read more about the house in this Times article.)
A number of music organizations both here and in the U.K. are marking Britten's centenary this season with a wide range of musical events, many part of the official Britten 100 celebration overseen by the Britten-Pears Foundation. This afternoon, 100,000 British children will simultaneously perform the composer's "Friday Afternoon Songs." At the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, which Britten built in 1970 to house the Aldeburgh Festival, Britten's protege, Ollie Knussen, leads the BBC Symphony in the Cantata Academica, Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, and the Spring Symphony, along with a world premiere by British composer Ryan Wiggleworth.
Here in NYC, there are the ongoing performances at Trinity Church Wall Street, which is presenting nearly 100 of Britten's works this fall. I stopped by Trinity yesterday to hear cellist Matt Haimovitz perform a program of music written since 1970, ending with Britten's remarkable Third Suite (1973), originally written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. The deeply personal music, inspired by Bach's immortal cello suites, was mostly stark and dirge-like, yet ended on a note of extraordinary triumph.
Tonight you can hear the Trinity Youth Chorus perform a selection of Britten's extensive works for children, including The Golden Vanity, Children’s Crusade, Friday Afternoons, and the Missa Brevis in D Major. Admission is free.
Also tonight, TENET will be peforming Britten's Ode to St. Cecilia at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in the Village. Admission is free.
But the centerpiece event is tonight's concert performance of Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall with David Robertson leading the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus, and starring the remarkable tenor Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes. Tickets are still available at the box office and online.
If you haven't spent enough time with his music, check out this amazing interactive audio sampler from the Britten 100 site. Or, just have a listen to Britten's own tribute to the saint with whom he shares this day.