To celebrate, to commemorate: Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)

Britten on Aldeburgh Beach in 1959. Photo by Hans Wild. Image courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation,

Britten on Aldeburgh Beach in 1959. Photo by Hans Wild. Image courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation,

It cannot have escaped your notice that this year we celebrate the centenary of the birth of one of Britain’s greatest composers: Benjamin Britten.  Best known for works such as Peter Grimes, the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and the great War Requiem, Britten’s works are innovative, imaginative, with a deep understanding particularly of the human voice, and the musical tradition from which he emerged. Here in the University Library our contribution to the celebrations takes the form of an exhibition running until the end of November looking at the connections between Britten and Cambridge and in particular those running through the special collections and archives held in the Music Department.

Britten’s association with Cambridge began in the 1930s when he and the tenor Peter Pears were regular visitors as recitalists or were in the City with the English Opera Group giving performances at the Arts Theatre. They also worked with the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS) which led to frequent appearances by the Society at the Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten’s work as an opera composer is reflected in the Coates/Powell-Lloyd collection which holds a large number of programmes for performances of his operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in which the mezzo-soprano Edith Coates sang.  Amongst those for gala occasions is that for the ill-fated premiere of Gloriana  on 8 June 1953, composed to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The libretto was written by William Plomer and Joan Cross created the role of Elizabeth I with Peter Pears as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. The première received a negative critical reception, perhaps fuelled by perceptions of favouritism shown to Britten and of the extravagance of the production in the harsh post-War economic climate. Edith Coates sung the part of a Housewife in the production. The libretto on display is from the bequest of Frederick Booth.

The concert programme collections we hold include a complete run of those for the Aldeburgh Festival, founded in 1948 by Britten, Peter Pears and theatrical director and librettist Eric Crozier. In the early days local venues at Orford, Blythburgh and Framlingham had to suffice, but in 1967 the concert hall at Snape Maltings was opened and has since been the Festival’s principal venue.

Britten in Japan in 1956 around the time of the Japanese premiere of Sinfonia da Requiem.  courtesy of

Britten in Japan in 1956 around the time of the Japanese premiere of Sinfonia da Requiem.
courtesy of www.britten

The musicologist Hans Keller was a devoted champion of the music of Britten and developed a lifelong friendship with the composer who dedicated his third String Quartet to him.  In 1953 Keller and Donald Mitchell published Benjamin Britten: a commentary on his works from a group of specialists M501.c.95.11. It was the first comprehensive survey of the not-yet-40-year-old composer’s works and the roll-call of eminent musicians who provided contributions is impressive including Erwin Stein, Norman del Mar, Hans Redlich and both editors. Yet the work was as much criticised as it was commended, provoking a storm of disagreement amongst the reviewers.

Hans Keller’s extensive archive, housed here in the Library, includes not only his articles about Britten and a modest number of letters from Britten, but also programmes for which Keller wrote notes. One such is that for the Sinfonia da requiem. The exhibition includes a copy of a letter from Britten to Keller answering some queries Keller had about the work, and Keller’s own annotated copy of the score.

Britten’s best known work is probably his War Requiem, which was composed for a festival to celebrate the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral in 1962. Arthur Bliss, whose archive is also held here, wrote The Beatitudes for the same festival, the original intention being to perform the work on the opening night of the Cathedral. Sadly Bliss’ work was moved to a local theatre, and suffered from weak accoustics and the lack of a decent organ. It finally received its Coventry Cathedral premiere last year. This makes an odd connection between his work and Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, with both works being commissioned for specific events and places, not being premiered where they were intended, and receiving premieres in the original place many years later.

There are further connections between Sir Arthur Bliss and War Requiem. Bliss knew both Wilfred Owen and his mother, Susan. They were frequently in contact around the time that Arthur Bliss’ own tribute to the dead of the First World War Morning Heroes was premiered. This exhibition as well as featuring a programme from the London premiere of War Requiem , also includes excerpts from Bliss’ First World War diaries.

Biographies of Britten – a multi-faceted, deeply complex man – scores of his compositions and studies of his music are available on the open shelves on the South Front of the University Library, and at the Pendelbury Library where there are also excellent collections of CDs and DVDs for study.

SW and MJ

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2 Responses to To celebrate, to commemorate: Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976)

  1. Pingback: Britten and Purcell: the arc of universal harmony | MusiCB3 Blog

  2. Pingback: New year: time to take stock | MusiCB3 Blog

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