Back in Britain, where as a conscientious objector he was excused military service, he began work on the piece that would establish him beyond question as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation – the operaPeter Grimes, premiered to an ecstatic reaction on June 7, 1945. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell– a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire – was first performed in the following year. Indeed, Britten now composed one major work after another, among them the operas The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw(1954), Noye’s Fludde (1957), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1970–71) and Death in Venice (1971–73); the Nocturne for tenor and orchestra (1958), the War Requiem (1961–62), a Cello Symphony (1963) for Rostropovich and his orchestral Suite on English Folk Tunes (1974).
Britten’s importance in post-War British cultural life was enhanced by his founding of the English Opera Group in 1946 and the Aldeburgh Festival two years later. His career as a composer was matched by his outstanding ability as a performer: he was both a refined pianist and a spontaneous and fluent conductor – his Mozart was particularly highly esteemed. Britten’s later career was clouded by bouts of illness, culminating in heart disease. He never fully recovered from open-heart surgery in 1973, and died on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63, a few months after being appointed a life peer – the first composer ever to know that honor.
Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes