I didn't initially like Britten the first time I heard his music. When I was about 15, I was obsessed with learning as much classical music repertoire as possible. Having grown up in a household where Broadway musicals and the American Songbook were the tunes blasting from an old stereo, I wanted to dive into orchestral music as...an outsider. I listened to Peter Grimes for the first time and as a pre-Glee obsessive musical theatre teenager, I thought the recitative lines where so strange. It sounded almost like morris code with the words "Grimes" and "crime" thrown in every so often to advance the plot. I dismissed the whole thing and went on to another composer. It wasn't really until a conversation I had my senior year of high school that made me rethink Britten.
I was at the Brevard Music Center studying composition and was, for six weeks straight, bubbling with excitement that the people around me liked the music I liked...and they didn't know I was an orchestral music...outsider! Two of my friends there lived somewhat in the same area I did so we started talking about the local youth symphony and they, as true with most youth orchestra members, were bitching about the repertoire for next year. "I hate the Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra!" exclaimed my friend scowling at this iPhone furiously. I knew Britten wrote the piece and I think I even listened to it once on some WCPE classical night time listening that put me to sleep in elementary school. The inner educator in me was glad their was a work that was geared towards children (now I'm writing one and use the Britten as an influence). After saying I haven't really listened to Britten (...outsider), I decided to look it up and it wasn't half bad. I then listened to the piece which dragged me into my deep love of Britten.
On the side bar of Youtube was the Peter Pears recording of Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The horn solo was what drove me in, and then it happened. Pears sings that fantastic, simple, V chord arpeggio and then right after that, an amazing "fa-mi" suspension in in the voice. I was obsessed and the next movement and the next. I listened to that piece basically everyday, as well as David Bowie and Queen's Under Pressure...what...for the rest of my stay at Brevard.
My personal opinion is that Britten, as well as Elliott Carter, set the english language better than anyone else. First and most importantly, Britten sets the text so one can actually hear and understand the words. That may sound basic but we all know most composers set text so high or so low that we have no idea what's being said. Britten also read a great deal of literature and poetry and knew how to identify and compose towards the essence of the text. I love Britten's music for several reasons now. His roots and musical influences are constantly present and expanded in his own work. His vocal works specifically are...and I hate the word cause it means nothing anymore but...beautiful as well as simple. In related news, Peter Grimes is now one of my favorite operas...and that's that.