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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials - Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten is a 20th-century British composer. Highly prolific, Britten produced operas, musical theatre, symphonies and song cycles. We will discuss some of his most famous operas below, but among his many works are adaptations of The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice. His exploration of musical theatre drew on sources ranging from Japanese Noh theatre to medieval English mystery plays. His song cycles served as a showcase for Britten’s talent of setting English words to music and included adaptations of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Britten’s legacy as a bold and innovative composer lives on long after his 1976 death.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Benjamin Britten

PETER GRIMES

Peter Grimes is perhaps Britten’s most famous opera. Adapted from a narrative poem of the same name by George Crabbe with a libretto by Montagu Slater, the opera details the trials of the titular fisherman. Following the death of his apprentice, Peter Grimes is mistrusted by his fellow townspeople, among them Mrs. Sedley, Balstrode, and Bob Boles. Only the schoolmistress Ellen Orford takes pity on Grimes. Eventually, when Grimes’ second apprentice dies, the suspicions of the townsfolk drive him to take his own life. Famous arias of the opera include Peter Grimes’ Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades” and Ellen Orford’s Embroidery aria. Instrumental pieces, known as the Sea Interludes, are often excerpted from the opera.

A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA

Britten composed A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in 1946 at the behest of the British Ministry of Education. The piece uses the rondeau from Henry Purcell’s Abdelazer as its source material. Britten divides his composition into three parts. Across the three sections, Britten explores the theme through each family of the orchestra and also provides variation on the theme within each family.

WAR REQUIEM

The War Requiem is Britten’s most ambitious non-operatic work. Premiering in 1961, War Requiem was commissioned for the dedication of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral, after the original had been destroyed by bombs in WWII. War Requiem intersperses elements of the Requiem Mass with poems by the WWI-era poet Wilfred Owen. Performance of the War Requiem requires a massive ensemble, including a main chorus and a boys’ choir. The requiem is unique in its extensive use of the tritone interval between C and F-sharp, an interval that produces unexpected dissonance throughout the work.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is another one of Britten’s most famous operas. Britten’s source material is the Melville novella of the same name, and the opera’s libretto is provided by E.M. Forster (of A Passage to India fame). Set aboard the HMS Indomitable during the French War of 1797, Billy Budd concerns a sailor (Budd) who is falsely accused of plotting a mutiny by the vindictive master-at-arms Claggart. Billy eventually ignores the advice of his cohorts, including the old seaman Dansker, and kills Claggart. Despite the best intentions of the good-hearted Captain Vere, Billy is still executed.

PETER PEARS

Peter Pears was an English tenor as well as Britten’s professional and romantic partner for over thirty years. Britten wrote many tenor parts for Pears, including the lead roles in the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Albert Herring. Britten also dedicated non-operatic works to Pears, including his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.

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Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

For a thorough plot summary of Peter Grimes, complete with excerpts from the opera, visit The Opera 101, a site that promotes “opera for everyone!”


Visit here to read the Wilfred Owen poems that Britten used in his composition of War Requiem.

Benjamin Britten drew from many sources when composing. Following a visit to Japan in 1955 he became fascinated by the tradition of Noh theatre, and incorporated elements of it into his own works of musical theatre. Read about the influence of Noh theatre on Britten’s chamber plays here.


There are many versions of A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to be found online. This performance, however, is notable in that it is narrated by Britten’s partner Peter Pears. Give it a listen and train your ear!


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