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Act Like You Know: Benjamin Britten

A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.
Denis De Marney
Getty Images
A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.

British composer Benjamin Britten was born 100 years ago this Friday, Nov. 22. Before you ask "Benja-who?" consider this: Did you see Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom last summer, or Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her back a decade or so ago? (Well, maybe you have to be an art-house denizen for those. But Moonrise Kingdom was more or less built around Britten's music.) Then you've already heard his music. Or, when you were a child, did your teachers or parents ever put The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra on the old hi-fi for your listening pleasure? Bam! You've already heard Britten.

But let's take a step back before we examine bits and pieces from his amazing output, and look at what he achieved over his lifetime. Britten, who died in 1976, was a gifted composer by any measure, but also an openly gay man in a time and place where homosexuality was illegal, and an avowed conscientious objector in the midst of the ravages and brutality of World War II. And it's fitting that his last name is a homonym for his nation: Pretty much single-handedly, he made it OK for English composers to write operas in (gasp!) English, writing about...English things. As he said in an address to the Aspen Festival in Colorado in 1964:

I like giving concerts, and in the last years we have traveled as far as Vancouver and Tokyo, Moscow and Java; I like making new friends, meeting new audiences, hearing new music. But I belong at home — there — in Aldeburgh [England]. I have tried to bring music to it in the shape of our local Festival; and all the music I write comes from it. I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships."

(And Americans, take heart: he went on in the same speech to say that he reached this conclusion in 1941 — on a visit to California.)

So in honor of this artist for whom Britain's Royal Mint has just created a new 50-pence coin, we offer you this pocket guide to Britten and his music. With it, you'll be ready to take on any Anglophiles or teams of tenors that you may encounter by Friday — which, not coincidentally, is also the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. And if on the off chance you're really, really ready to make a commitment to Britten: Decca has issued a stunning collection of the complete Britten — a 65-CD set, featuring recordings spanning 20 labels — that will keep you very busy until at least his 101st anniversary.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.