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Is late Britten great Britten?

In the Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal, I survey the last decade of Benjamin Britten’s life though the perspective of his letters – the sixth and final volume of which have just appeared.

britten letters

It was eventful decade, leaving me insufficient space to discuss the relative value of the works he poured forth as his health steadily failed. Did he maintain the same strike rate of masterpieces in his 50s as in his astonishing 30s? Surely not.

Most would count the Cello Symphony a major work and the last opera, Death in Venice, demands to be seen at least twice for its proliferation of psychological meanings. The third string quartet has rather faded off the radar and Owen Wingrave, an opera made for television, has never found its feet on stage.

Are there masterpieces of the final decade that I am missing?

UPDATE: So what really killed Britten? The British press sniffs smut.

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  1. I like “Phaedra” for voice & orchestra and the lighter “Suite on English Folk Tunes, ‘A Time There Was..’”

  2. Owen Wingrave is an opera not much-liked, but I am very fond of late, great Britten. DEATH IN VENICE and PHAEDRA are indeed wonderful, too.

  3. How about the 3 Cello Suites? Composed ’64, ’67 and ’72.

  4. Dr. Marc Villeger says:

    I discovered Britten through a Decca recording of Cello Symphony featuring the composer and Rostropovich. A great work!

  5. Tim Matthies says:

    These works are mostly all complex & sophisticated & to really come over as strongly as possible require great performances – my experiences hearing the late Philip Langridge singing Ashenbach, Steven Isserlis performing the three Suites & the Takacs Quartet performing the 3rd Quartet ensure that these works rate very highly for me!

  6. Paul D. Sullivan, Boston US says:


    First of all, let me than say I enjoyed your piece in the Wall Street Journal about Britten , “The English Orpheus”.
    I especially liked your comments on his long term relationship with Pears. Sadly something that wouldn’t be acceptable back then and certainly has been a long time in coming. Reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s life. Even today friends of mine are shocked to find out he was gay.

    Second I have never listened to Britten until very recently, when I saw a performance of “Young Peoples Guide to the Orchestra” (being done later this season by the BSO) and his “Paul Bunyon” Operetta, both done by NEC. While I can’t comment on his latter compositions (I more of a fan of big Romantic pieces, Light classics and operetta) I was reading one of your reviews at and there was a pop up for an online music station. Now I have all the music Britten wrote to listen to, so hopefully it will broaden my horizons! Right now I’m listening to his Piano concerto in D. Wonderful!

  7. Michael Hurshell says:

    Of course the cello symphony is wonderful. I must say, though, that there are times when the early masterpieces – Grimes, Sinfonia da Requiem, etc. – have a greater effect on me. (But then there is the War Requiem, which I love.) At the same time, I am a great admirer of Britten the interpreter – at the piano playing 4 hands with Richter, conducting Mozart symphonies, not to mention his own works. That seems to me an important aspect of his later output…

  8. I am ambivalent about Britten in general, but I must confess I have been immensely moved by his third quartet (played by the Amadeus, of course).

  9. Bob Gilmore says:

    Yes – from the last decade The Prodigal Son is magnificent, as is the song-cycle Who are these children?, the opera Death in Venice, and the fourth and fifth Canticles (Journey of the Magi and The Death of St Narcissus), and the third quartet. And then a range of “lesser” but wonderful works like the third cello suite, the Suite on English Folk Tunes, A Birthday Hansel. The last, incomplete, work, Praise We Great Men, was shaping up into something wonderful too.

  10. i’ve got to admit that the Third Quartet – pretty much the very last thing he wrote – is one of the only Britten works that really speaks to me. At last he drops that prissy, brilliant mask, and gets form, emotion and sonority into perfect balance. A masterpiece by any standards; one of the few post-war British string quartets to surpass Tippett and Daniel Jones. It’s worthy of Shostakovich. But so late in the day…

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