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Top Five Ways to Commemorate the Britten Centenary

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Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, the same day as the feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. And on Friday, Britten would have turned exactly 100 years old. To commemorate the extraordinary British composer, here are five ways to celebrate his life and legacy.

1. Go to a concert featuring his music.

For his centennial year, hundreds of concerts have been scheduled around the world to honor Britten’s prodigious output. The site Britten100 lists no fewer than 152 events being staged on Britten’s actual birthday. In the most ambitious programs held locally, David Robertson will lead the St. Louis Symphony in a concert version of the opera Peter Grimes, with Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role. Meanwhile, a few blocks uptown, Alan Gilbert will conduct the New York Philharmonic in an all-Britten program featuring the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Paul Appleby and Philip Myers and the Spring Symphony.


2. Get the commemorative coin.

To celebrate its native son, the Royal Mint has released a commemorative coin in the United Kingdom. The design, created Tom Phillips, a visual artist and composer, features Benjamin Britten’s name written on a double stave. Quotations from Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings—“Blow bugle blow” and “Set the wild echoes flying”—appear at the top and bottom of the coin. With this special edition, Britten carries the posthumous honor of being the only Briton other than the queen to have both his first and last names inscribed on a 50 pence coin.


3. Read about the composer’s life.

Pegged to the centenary, no fewer than three full biographies, a collection of letters, and a book of photographs of Britten have been published. The drama surrounding the composer’s life—from child prodigy whose performance career was derailed by stage fright to being hailed the most successful English composer since Henry Purcell—and his progressive yet controversial stances against war and his homosexuality, rival that of his riveting operas. Both Neil Powell’s book Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music and Paul Kildea’s Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century recount these episodes, as well as Humphrey Carpenter’s 1992 Benjamin Britten: A Biography, which remains a classic.


4. Listen to his work on film

In last year’s "Moonrise Kingdom," director Wes Anderson made splendid use of Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Noye’s Fludde. But directors have been incorporating his music into movie soundtracks for decades, taking advantage of its cinematic qualities. The composer collaborated with W. H. Auden for the closing music in the 1936 British documentary "The Night Mail" and Pedro Almodóvar featured his music in the 2002 film "Talk to Her."

5. Visit a site where Britten once lived.

In Aldeburgh, where Britten and his companion, lover and muse, Peter Pears, spent much of their lives together, there is a trail that connects the places the couple frequented to their home, The Red House, which is now headquarters of the Britten-Pears Foundation. While Britten was in the States from 1939 to 1942, he lived in the de facto artist colony at February House on Middagh Street in Brooklyn with Gypsy Rose Lee, Carson McCullers and other creatively minded folk. The building was demolished to construct the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, but it has inspired several books and a musical.

WQXR Specials

You can also find special programming on WQXR, Q2 Music and the Operavore Stream. Below is a rundown.

Operavore: Thursday at 4 pm, Saturday at 5 pm and Sunday at 1 pm: the World of Opera features Billy Budd.

On Friday, Operavore presents Albert Herring (10 am), Peter Grimes (3 pm), The Turn of the Screw (5:15 pm) and Billy Budd (7 pm).

Q2 Music: The online stream presents a 24-hour marathon featuring "Abraham and Isaac" from The Canticles with tenor Ian Bostridge, countertenor David Daniels and pianist Julius Drake; the Violin Concerto with violin soloist Janine Jansen; Cello Suite No. 1 with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; Saint Nicolas with conductor Stephen Layton leading the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge; and many others.