Scroll down the timeline to trace the roots of Britten's pacifist beliefs and explore the musical works that express them. Click on a topic for more information.
When he was only two, Britten’s home town of Lowestoft came under fire from the German navy. In her memoir, his sister Beth recalled the event: ‘We were all at home for the bombardment which happened in the early hours of April 25th 1916. We were all hustled down to the cellar, then Nanny marshalled the maids and shot upstairs to see what was going on outside. Pop told us afterwards that he had trouble making her stay in the cellar... Fortunately for us, the shells mostly went over us to the back of the town, although one fell in the field opposite the house and a large piece went into the wall under the dining room window. By a miracle the windows were not broken. The crater from the shell was enormous. There was only this piece of rough land between us and the sea. The town suffered much damage but fortunately not many casualties.’ The circular ‘cropmark’ in the bottom right corner of this 1922 photograph seems to be a trace of the ‘enormous crater’ left opposite the Britten house.
Through his viola teacher Britten was introduced to Frank Bridge, who was suitably impressed to offer him composition lessons. The older composer’s political views and strong sense of morality began to make a big impression on his young pupil. Britten later wrote: '‘... A lot of feeling about the First World War, which people seem to see in my War Requiem, came from Bridge. He had written a piano sonata in memory of a friend killed in France, and although he didn't encourage me to take a stand for the sake of a stand, he did make me argue and argue and argue.’
At school, Britten was profoundly shocked by the corporal punishment he witnessed, though he himself was rarely on the receiving end. By the time he left his Lowestoft prep school Britten was Captain of Cricket and Victor Ludorum. However, he used his end of year essay, ‘Animals’, to fiercely argue against animal cruelty and hunting. The essay received no marks.
In his diary entry for 19 February 1935, Britten wrote: 'Mum has Mrs Owles & Mrs Woodger to tea. After which I spend 1 1/2 hrs knocking at people's front doors up this road - delivering Peace Ballot papers. A foul job - but it may do a little good, and make a few people use their brains. But of course it would be my luck to get alloted a road just packed with die-hards - Indian Colonels, army widows, typical old spinsters etc!' The Peace Ballot was a national survey of public opinion organised by the League of Nations Union.
The director Paul Rotha believed that cinema should do more than entertain, and devised this short ‘Peace Film’ as a statement against re-armament, working with the independent production company, Strand Films. Britten, who had already written a number of soundtracks for the GPO Film Unit, was enthusiastic about collaborating on this anti-war project. A controversial delay by the British Board of Film Censors in granting a certificate brought useful publicity for the film, which was eventually seen by over two million people in cinemas around the country.
Britten visited Barcelona - to attend the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival - just before the Spanish Civil War broke out. As his 1936 diary records, he followed news of the conflict closely and it strengthened his pacifist convictions.
The alarming modernity of the sound world of this piece caused mockery from the orchestra at the first rehearsal and the general disdain of the critics. However Britten’s settings (for soprano and orchestra) of five poems by WH Auden with the theme of animal cruelty are dazzlingly virtuostic. Despite the attention they generated at the time nearly everyone missed this thinly veiled commentary on the growing violence of the Nazi regime in Germany.
This ‘Marching Song’, as Britten referred to it, for two-part choir was composed for the Peace Pledge Union, the non-secular pacifist organisation founded by Canon Dick Sheppard in 1934. The stridently rhythmic score, with text by Ronald Duncan, urges the rejection of warfare by drawing attention to a bloody and violent past. Despite embracing the ideals of the PPU, the work proved unpopular with its members and was soon withdrawn.
By early 1939 Britten wanted to broaden his horizons. There was a growing feeling among his left-wing friends that ‘Europe was finished’. His new performing partner, the singer Peter Pears, had already toured North America with the New English Singers. In April 1939 he and Britten set off there, with few firm plans beyond the summer. After Britain entered the war on 3 September 1939, Britten and Pears – by now a couple – were officially advised to stay in the US. The idea for Britten’s first great opera, Peter Grimes, was sparked when – homesick in California – he read an article by EM Forster about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe: ‘In a flash, I realized two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.’
Britten and Pears finally returned to Britain in 1942 and both registered as Conscientious Objectors. In a statement to the Appellate Tribunal in June 1942, Britten wrote: ‘I must draw the line as far away from direct participation [‘in total war’] as possible. It is for this reason that I appeal to be left free to follow that line of service to the community which my conscience approves & my training makes possible.’
Shortly after the triumph of Peter Grimes Britten went on a recital-tour of German towns and villages with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin – replacing the intended accompanist Gerald Moore. They visited the recently liberated Belsen and performed to survivors and, by Britten’s own admission, the suffering he witnessed coloured all that he subsequently wrote. The theme of death and dark brooding permeates everything in the first work he wrote after his return – this cycle for tenor and piano.
On returning from the US in 1942 Britten was confronted with a war-torn England. ‘London is a terrible sight, and all over the place there are homes down… The sirens make the most horrible wailing noise, like hundreds of gigantic cats, & they always make my stomach turn upside down.’ Scenes of this kind inspired Edith Sitwell to write a poem describing the dawn raids. Britten set this poem for tenor, horn and piano and the mournful intensity is increased by the use of repeated patterns to conjure up the stomach-churning sirens.
In the same year as Britten wrote this piece he listed Owen’s ‘Strange meeting’ as one of his favourite poems and chose to set Owen in his cycle exploring the theme of sleep. Nocturne uses a string orchestra and 7 solo instruments to illustrate 8 poems (they only play together in the final poem) all concerned with sleeping and night time. In Owen’s ‘Friendly ghosts’ a haunting cor anglais conjures the image of a sleeping woman untroubled by the surrounding ghosts of fallen soldiers.
Written to commemorate the centenary of the Red Cross Britten chose to set (in Latin) the parable of the Good Samaritan. The piece is a kind of mini-War Requiem with a small instrumental group (a string quartet) offset against larger forces and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Peter Pears again as soloists. The final lullaby ‘Dormi nunc, amice’ has a similar function to the requiem’s ‘Let us sleep now…’
When asked by the Secretary General of the UN to write a piece for the organisation’s 20th anniversary Britten chose 15 texts by peace-loving authors. The work for unaccompanied mixed choir was simultaneously performed in New York, London and Paris and uses offstage children’s voices in much the same way as War Requiem.
Based on a grisly and grim ballad-poem by Bertolt Brecht, this piece for children’s voices and battery of percussion tells the ultimately futile tale of a group of lost children wandering in the Polish wilderness during war-time. Unrelenting in its message it was first performed in St Paul’s Cathedral, London as part of the celebrations for the Save the Children fund.
The Scottish poet William Soutar was inspired to write a war-time poem by a newspaper image of a fox-hunt passing through a bombed out village whilst impoverished children look on. Britten took this poem and 11 others (some in dialect) and created this late song-cycle for tenor and piano. Many of the poems question the nature of war and the cycle ends with a description of the felling of a grand old oak tree.
Like The Turn of the Screw (1954) this opera has a libretto by Myfanwy Piper and is based on a short story by Henry James. Owen is the last of a military family and refutes his traditions and refuses to fight and be a soldier. As a consequence they turn on him and he is haunted by them and the family ghosts. Originally written for BBC television with an all-star cast it later was transferred to the stage.