Monday, 25 May 2020

Tracing a youthful relationship: Tony Cooper looks at Britten's links to Norfolk & the city of Norwich

Frank Bridge; Benjamin Britten; Ethel Bridge  by Unknown photographer snapshot print NPG x15184 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Frank Bridge; Benjamin Britten; Ethel Bridge by Unknown photographer
snapshot print NPG x15184 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Norfolk-based music writer, Tony Cooper, traces the steps of Benjamin Britten’s youthful links to the county of Norfolk and, in particular, to the fine city of Norwich.


Born a Suffolk boy on 22nd November 1913 (which also happens to be St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music) at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, Lowestoft, Edward Benjamin Britten (he dropped his first name early in life) was the son of a dentist and his mother, an amateur choral singer. But practically forgotten about nowadays is to the fact that he forged his early musical talents in Norfolk and, in particular, in the fine city of Norwich. From the tender age of 10, he regularly visited the city for viola lessons with Mrs Audrey Alston, a good friend of his mother and a member of the Norwich String Quartet.

She was heavily involved with classical music in Norwich and practically knew everyone in the music business including the eminent Brighton-born composer, Frank Bridge. He studied at the Royal College of Music from 1899 to 1903 under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and stayed with Mrs Alston while attending meetings of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival at St Andrew’s Hall, the ‘home’ of the Triennial since its inception in 1824.

What could well be said to be an important part of Britten’s musical education occurred at St Andrew’s Hall on 30th October 1924 when he witnessed Frank Bridge conducting his suite for orchestra, The Sea, while three years later, on 27th October 1927, Mrs Alston urged Bridge (who was in the city conducting the première of his latest work, Enter Spring) to meet the young aspiring Suffolk-born composer. Reluctantly, he agreed to her request. Following an inspection of Britten's music, Bridge heartily accepted him as one of his very few composition pupils.

A young Michael Crawford in the 1959 production of Britten's Noye's Fludde at St Margaret's Church in Lowestoft; cast members pictured with Benjamin Britten (Photo Eastern Daily Press)
A young Michael Crawford in the 1959 production of Britten's Noye's Fludde at St Margaret's Church in Lowestoft; cast members pictured with Benjamin Britten (Photo Eastern Daily Press)
Britten’s links to Norfolk, however, were strengthened when he enrolled at Gresham’s School near Holt in 1928. He was there for less than a couple of years, leaving in July 1930. He found Gresham’s not to his liking. But once he had actually taken leave of his friends and masters he commented: ‘I didn’t think I should be sorry to leave.’ It was at Gresham’s where W H Auden befriended Britten and acted as a mentor to him encouraging him to widen his aesthetic, intellectual and political horizons.

However, during this rather fraught period in his life he wrote and sketched a number of pieces and in his first year at Gresham’s he wrote the String Quartet in F major under the supervision of Frank Bridge. He was 14 years old. This was followed by the Quatre Chansons francaises, scored for soprano and small orchestra, completed in August 1928, a few days before his 15th birthday.

In the same birthday year he also wrote A Wealden Trio (Christmas Song of the Women) for two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano. Essentially a carol, the prose - coming from the English novelist, poet and critic, Ford Maddox Ford - painted a rather bleak picture of Christmastide poverty while Rhapsody and Quartettino (both written for string quartet) were penned by Britten at the age of 16. Remarkable pieces, really, for such a young composer to be writing.

Britten at Gresham's School - He is pictured front row far left in this photograph from 1929. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
Britten at Gresham's School - He is pictured front row far left in this photograph from 1929.
Image courtesy of www.britten100.org.
The influence of Bridge in Quartettino is self-evident and the work was submitted (in tandem with Reflection for viola and piano) as a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music. And two months after the day he departed Gresham’s, he wrote Elegy for solo viola aged 16. It was probably written for himself to play to express his feelings at that time. Surprisingly, it didn’t receive its first performance until performed by the Japanese violist, Nobuko Imai, at the 1984 Aldeburgh Festival.

A significant work, Reflection turned out to be one of Britten’s most accomplished compositions from his early period although his own title for it was simply called Piece. It was renamed for publication and not performed until long after the composer’s death by the violist Philip Dukes accompanied by Sophia Rahman on BBC Radio 3 in November 1995.

Britten’s anthem for mixed voices, A Hymn to the Virgin, proved a remarkable piece for a 16-year-old student who was unwell at the time of writing it and also approaching his final days at Gresham’s. Suffering from a high temperature he was confined to the school infirmary where he passed the time away reading books by the likes of John Buchan, author of Greenmantle and The 39 Steps. The work received its first performance at St John’s Church, Lowestoft, on 5th January 1931.

The text that Britten used was by an anonymous poet probably dating from about 1300. It appears in The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 which Britten won as a school prize for music. It’s a macaronic verse inasmuch as it is a poem in which one language is introduced into the context of another. Therefore, the main body of the choir sings in Middle English with a semi-chorus supplying a refrain in Latin. A paean to the mother of God, referencing the Nativity, it can, of course, be sung at any time of the year but during the season of Christmas it comes into its own.

However, if Britten had mixed feelings about Gresham’s his feeling for Norwich, it seems, was paramount and strengthened even further in 1951 when he became President of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club. With Peter Pears, he presided over a number of song-recitals in the 1950s and 1960s at Norwich’s elegant Georgian-built Assembly House which, by the way, hosted a recital by Franz Liszt in September 1840.

Their first recital (27th October 1951) included The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo composed by Britten in 1940 and written for himself and Peter Pears. Comprising settings of seven sonnets (all love songs) by the Italian painter and poet, Michelangelo, the piece was sung in the original language. And Britten and Pears delivered yet another brilliant song-recital for the Music Club on 30th January 1954 featuring a performance of Canticle No.1 as well as a selection of folk-song arrangements.

A further song-recital came round on 26th May 1961 which included a performance of Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente (Six Hölderlin Fragments), a song-cycle for high voice and piano composed by Britten in 1958 comprising settings of short poems and verse fragments by the German 18th/19th-century lyric-poet, Friedrich Hölderlin.

Incidentally, the Assembly House is still in use today with Norwich-born classical-music aficionado and Wagner lover as well as an ‘old boy’ of Gresham’s School, Roger Rowe (former programme director of the Norfolk & Norwich Music Club) curating a series of lunchtime chamber concerts.

Most definitely an important step in the musical life of Norwich and, indeed, the county, dates from 1963 when Britten was invited by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, Frank Thistlethwaite, to offer his advice upon setting up of a music department which came to fruition two years after their meeting. Dutifully, the University of East Anglia conferred the degree of Doctor of Music (honoris causa) on Britten on 11th November 1967. The first UEA director of music, Dr Philip Ledger, was only 27 when he was appointed in October 1965. His tenure lasted for eight years which included three years as Dean of the School of Fine Arts and Music.

Following UEA, Ledger became director of music and organist at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1973, where earlier he had taken first-class honours. Sadly, though, the UEA music department no longer exists receiving the dreaded axe in 2014, a decision made by the UEA Council in 2011.

However, to cement relationships between Town & Gown, the first big offering from the UEA was a couple of grand performances of War Requiem given in Norwich Cathedral on 1st/2nd December 1967. It brought together the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra (led by Colin Clouting) and the Norwich Philharmonic Chorus, the UEA Choir and the Suffolk Singers with members of the English Chamber Orchestra, the Ambrosian Singers and Brian Runnett (Norwich Cathedral’s organist) along with the choristers of Norwich Cathedral and boys from Taverham Hall Preparatory School. There were about 400 performers in all while the soloists comprised Peter Pears, Thomas Hemsley and Mary Wells (Dr Ledger’s wife). Philip Ledger conducted the main musical forces while Benjamin Britten directed the Melos Ensemble and Frederick Firth (Norfolk County Council’s music advisor) the boys’ choirs.

Interestingly, many of Britten’s works were first heard in Norwich conducted by the composer starting off with the Simple Symphony, Op 4, on 6th March 1934 by the Norwich String Orchestra conducted by Britten at the Stuart Hall, Norwich - currently ‘home’ to the Picturehouse arts cinema, Cinema City - situated directly opposite St Andrew’s Hall while Our Hunting Fathers, Op 8, received its première on 25th September in St Andrew’s Hall at the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival of 1936 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring the Swiss-born soprano, Sophie Wyss.

And in the same year (5th December) A Ceremony of Carols, Op 28, received its first performance in the Norman-built keep of Norwich Castle by the Fleet Street Choir conducted by T B Lawrence featuring Margaret Ritchie (soprano) and Gwendolen Mason (harp) while the Hymn to St Peter, Op 56a, received its première on 20th November 1955 at St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, performed by the choir of this renowned church in which the German-British architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, exclaimed was the finest example of Perpendicular architecture to be found in the whole of England.

If the Norfolk & Norwich Festival is so closely associated with the cloistered surroundings of St Andrew’s Hall so, too, is the Norwich Philharmonic Society where on 3rd February 1955 the Norwich Philharmonic Orchestra performed Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op 31, conducted by the composer with the soloists comprising Peter Pears and Dennis Brain.

Britten: GLoriana - Royal Opera House, 2013 (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Britten: Gloriana - Queen Elizabeth I being entertained in Norwich
Royal Opera House, 2013 (Photo ROH/Clive Barda)
Most of Britten’s large-scale works hit the mark but one that struggled to do so was the opera, Gloriana, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953. The libretto focuses upon the relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and the Earl of Essex. A nice link to Norwich, however, is featured in the first scene of act two depicting the medieval flint-knapped Guildhall situated by Norwich’s market-place established by the Normans in the 11th century. Elizabeth I was greeted at the Guildhall when she visited the city in 1578 and most probably stayed at the near-by Maid’s Head Hotel. Dating from the late 13th century, this well-loved hotel, standing beside Norwich Cathedral, also hosted Edward the Black Prince (son of Edward III) and Catherine of Aragon (first wife of Henry VIII).

Most probably the last time that Britten stepped foot in Norwich was for a performance of Billy Budd by Welsh National Opera at the Theatre Royal on 31st October 1972. As usual, he was accompanied by his lifetime partner, Peter Pears.

Widely regarded as England’s greatest composer since Henry Purcell in the 17th century, Britten (whom Australian-born composer, Malcolm Williamson, said preached peace through his music) was granted a life peerage by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to music thereby becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh.

By sheer coincidence on the day that Britten died (4th December 1976) a concert devoted solely to his works took place in St Andrew’s Hall by the UEA Choir and Norwich Sinfonia conducted by Professor Peter Aston and Julian Webb featuring Kenneth Bowman as soloist. The main work in the programme was the cantata Saint Nicolas (op 42) set to a text by Eric Crozier and completed in 1948.

And at Britten’s funeral, Philip Ledger played the Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Victoria, the composer’s only work for solo organ. Ledger, in fact, served as a joint artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival for 21 years from 1968. He conducted, too, the opening concert at the rebuilt Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1970 following the disastrous fire of 1969 which gutted the building following that year’s opening concert.

Britten also gave another nod to the University of East Anglia when he appointed Professor Aston as conductor of the Aldeburgh Festival Singers in 1974. He carried out his duties with them until 1988.

It goes without saying, really, but the move from the intimate Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh to the Maltings Concert Hall at Snape - a vision that Britten harboured for many years - proved a winner and opened up the Aldeburgh Festival (founded by Britten, Peter Pears and Eric Crozier in 1948) to a much wider (and more diverse) audience.

What more can I say apart from the wisdom of books, the wisdom of music, the wisdom of art, are all employed and entwined within the wonderful Maltings’ arts complex.

Tony Cooper
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