Benjamin Britten : the things spiritual.

Electronic versions


  • Graham Elliott

    Research areas

  • Literature, Mass, media, Performing, arts, Philosophy, Religion, History


Since Benjamin Britten's death in 1976, a number of commentaries have been published on his life and work. Most of them observe the facts of Britten's deeply-felt pacifism, and his homosexuality. It has been suggested that Britten felt himself to be outside 'normal' society, and that this accounts for his obvious sympathy for the 'outsider' in his operas. Although this is undoubtedly an important aspect of Britten's total make-up, the present thesis seeks to show that he was concerned with very much more universal concerns, which are frequently to be seen as having a strong spiritual dimension. Part I examines Britten's early life and the strong presence which the Church had in his childhood and adolescence. It shows the way in which certain spiritual influences were first manifested in his life; and which, like the more specifically musical 'themes' which Donald Mitchell has noted, are capable of being traced through Britten's life. Part I includes comment from two churchmen who were influential in Britten's life, as well as a chapter devoted to the observations of Sir Peter Pears. Part II examines a wide range of the composer's music which can be seen to have a spiritual dimension. The specifically liturgical music forms a relatively small part of Britten's output, and it has not received wide critical notice in the way that the large-scale works have done. This music is examined here, and it is shown to possess important musical characteristics in common with the bigger works. The four chapters headed 'Parable Music' examine a wide range of Britten's works (including some of the operas) which can be seen to have a spititual dimension. Britten could not be described as a conventional Christian; still less is it true to describe him, as Eric Walter White has done, as "keen, wherever possible, to work within the framework of the Church of England", but his spirituality was strongly rooted in the religious experiences of his childhood. This thesis seeks to show that Britten retained a sense of the Christian values absorbed in childhood and adolescence, and that these - along with the specifically Christian heritage of plainsong - were strongly influential in his choice and treatment of themes throughout his career.


Original languageEnglish
    Award dateJun 1985