Celebrating the life and career of Benjamin Britten, Suffolk’s true musical great

Next year would have brought the 100th birthday of one of Suffolk’s most famous sons – composer Benjamin Britten. It’s going to be a momentous occasion, not just for Aldeburgh and Suffolk, but also for the nation as a whole.

The Britten centenary celebrations will filter their way into daily life in a way not dissimilar to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee or the Olympics. Britten will pop up on television, in your daily newspaper – even at the supermarket. As you would expect, it’s a celebration that is not going to be restricted to a week or two in November 2013. The centenary starts here and now.

Over the next 12 months a whole series of events is being planned to give Britten the recognition he deserves. He is a man who put contemporary British music on the world map. Here in Suffolk we are very familiar with him because he was very much a part of Suffolk life. He started the Aldeburgh Festival just after the Second World War and it flourished to such an extent that, by the end of the 1960s, he had to move it down the road to the Snape Maltings – renovating a semi-derelict granary to create a world-renowned concert hall in the process.

But Britten, through his music, made people sit up and take notice across Europe and the United States. Even more amazingly, at the height of the Cold War, Britten made several trips to the Soviet Union in the mid-sixties to give concerts and renew friendships with musicians Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich.

At a time when the world seemed on the brink of war Britten, the pacifist, was busily building bridges with music.

Suffolk has long cherished Britten and his work, but by the end of the year the rest of Britain and the world will be reminded of his greatness thanks to a wide-ranging series of concerts, books, CD and DVD releases, radio broadcasts, television documentaries, lectures, recitals and the issuing of a new Benjamin Britten 50p coin.

Orchestrating much of the centenary celebrations will be Aldeburgh Music, the organisation founded by Britten to oversee the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Britten-Pears Foundation (BPF) which operates out of Britten’s former home, The Red House. The BPF is dedicated to preserving his legacy and making his works available for future generations.

Most Read

Both organisations are planning a series of events which will stretch over the next 12 months.

The year of celebration, which has been designated Britten:100, starts on November 22, Britten’s 99th “birthday”, with Aldeburgh Music announcing a major schools project – Friday Afternoons, a nationwide singing project which is looking to get 75,000 children all performing Britten together on Britten’s 100th birthday: November 22, 2013.

Friday Afternoons takes its name from a song cycle of 12 songs that Benjamin Britten wrote between 1933 and 1935 for his brother, who was headmaster of a school in Prestatyn.

The songs were recently featured in the hit American independent film Moonrise Kingdom, starring Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Bruce Willis.

A number of Suffolk schools will be gathering at the Snape Maltings to give a taste of this work for the launch next week.

November also sees the Royal Mint unveiling the new Benjamin Britten 50p coin. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has given the coin his endorsement and it is expected to enter circulation early in the New Year.

At the beginning of December the first of the musical performances begin with A Ceremony of Carols at Aldeburgh Parish Church, scene of many triumphs for Britten in the early days of the festival.

Stephen Layton will be conducting Polyphony, the Temple Church Choir and Aldeburgh Voices in a sequence of Britten carols to launch the year-long celebrations.

They will also be performing A Boy Was Born and Five Flower Songs during the concerts which will be staged on December 7 and 8.

This is followed up in February 2013 with the launch of PLACE – a cross-arts weekend which will explore Britten’s love of Suffolk and its countryside through a new soundwork, In Britten’s Footsteps, by sound engineer Chris Watson. The work was inspired by Britten’s 1964 statement: “My music now has its roots in where I live and work.”

Aldeburgh Music chief executive Jonathan Reekie believes that 2013 will be great time to show the world what Suffolk has to offer – both in terms of culture and natural beauty.

“The centenary of Benjamin Britten will be marked by special events all over the world but none will be more distinctive than those held in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coastal town that inspired Britten with its timeless landscape and where he lived and worked for most of his life.

“Aldeburgh is the beating heart of Britten’s wide-ranging legacy – the festival he founded, the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the many opportunities he gave to young talent and the archive which all combine to create one of the great musical centres of the world.”

These sentiments are echoed by the Britten-Pears Foundation, who are gearing themselves up for the completion of a �4.7 million project to create a new secure, climate-controlled archive and study-centre for Britten’s letters and manuscripts and the re-opening of The Red House to the public.

Until recently The Red House was used for research and to store Britten’s archive. With the opening of a purpose-built storage facility in the grounds of the house, the home that Britten shared with his partner, Sir Peter Pears, can now be opened to the public. The Red House, which is located next to Aldeburgh Golf Course, off the Aldringham Road, will be returned to how it looked when the composer lived there from the mid 1950s to his death in 1976.

For the first time visitors will be able to see where Britten worked, sitting at a writing desk over-looking the grounds of The Red House.

Britten’s study and composing room have been restored, with the help of photographs, to how they were while he was working. The house not only has all the original furniture but the vast majority of all the letters and notebooks he produced.

Kevin Gosling, from the BPF, said: “Britten was a great collector. He was a natural archivist; he was a hoarder. He never threw anything away and as a result we have one of the most informative and important collections of work because we can trace his thought processes and trace how his compositions came about.”

Exhibitions will highlight various aspects of Britten’s life and career and there will be a rare opportunity for the public to see Peter Pears’s extensive art collection, which has not been on display since his death in 1985. He said the idea of both the archive centre and the opening up of the Red House was to promote Britten to both the general public and the specialist musical world.

“Benjamin Britten was a hugely important musician but he was also a man who loved Suffolk and was inspired by the countryside around him. He was very much part of the town of Aldeburgh and that was very important to him.”

This sentiment was echoed by Britten himself, who wrote in 1968: “I believe that an artist should be part of his community, should work for it, with it and be used by it.”

As part of this community spirit, in March, the Britten-Pears Foundation will unveil a new selection of walks which will take ramblers around Snape, Iken and Aldeburgh, following routes actually taken by Benjamin Britten.

Although the re-opening of The Red House is important, music lies at the heart of the centenary celebrations.

Things move into high gear over Easter weekend when Aldeburgh Music will present a weekend which celebrates the influence that Purcell had on Britten’s music. Christian Curnyn will conduct the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra in Dido and Aeneas; while La Nuova will perform Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia and Concerto Calendonia will take a fresh look at Purcell and Britten through the eyes of contemporary singer-songwriters.

In May, festival regular Ian Bostridge will be presenting Britten’s dramatic concert work The Canticles with help from theatre professionals and visual artists.

June sees a dramatic start to the centenary Aldeburgh Festival with immersive theatre company Punchdrunk staging Peter Grimes on the beach.

Punchdrunk were the people responsible for co-creating the Dr Who experience The Crash of the Elysium in Ipswich this summer. The beach performances will be staged in tandem with concert performances at the Snape Maltings.

The Aldeburgh Festival will be packed with special performances,) including a clutch of world premieres from leading composers who have been commissioned by the Britten-Pears Foundation to honour the spirit of Britten and his works.

Among the composers who will be unveiling new works will be Richard Rodney Bennett, Harrison Birtwistle, Magnus Lindberg and Judith Weir.

Among the performers appearing the festival will be the Halle Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder, Oliver Knussen, Britten Sinfonia and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

The festival will also have associated arts strands, including Britten Dances, which will feature new choreography from Kim Brandstrup working with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and a new work from DanceEast associate artist Cameron McMillan, working in collaboration with the Royal Ballet.

Other arts works include pieces by playwright Mark Ravenhill, while musical dramatist Conor Mitchell and singer Jamie McDermott have created a new set of Britten-inspired cabaret songs.

BBC Radio 3 have commissioned trumpeter Guy Barker to write a jazz suite based on characters from Britten’s operas.

The other highlight of the 2013 festival will be the performance of The Church Parables, Britten’s triptych of musical theatre works, in Orford Church, the venue for which they were originally designed.

The Snape Proms in August next year will provide an opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with some of Britten’s rarer works. These will include performances of Winter Words, A Charm of Lullabies, Cello Symphony and a new take on Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard with folk artist Jon Boden.

The year comes to a close in November with two performances of Death In Venice by Opera North at Snape Maltings before Oliver Knussen conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a Centenary Concert.

Lowestoft will play host to a new production of Noye’s Fludde over the birthday weekend while the BBC Symphony Orchestra will staging a performance of A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, as events keep being added to the centenary celebrations. The BBC and Sky Arts have scheduled a wide range of programmes – both documentaries and coverage of concerts being held across the country.

Conductor and writer Paul Kildea, who has worked at Snape and was artistic director at the Wigmore Hall, is publishing an exhaustive new biography of Britten to coincide with the anniversary.

This aims not only to tell the facts about Britten’s extraordinary life and chart his achievements but also to put him into a musical context – to locate him in a musical landscape which not only shows how influential his work was but also why it was important and how he managed to break down barriers across the globe.

Next year is going to see a glorious celebration, not only of the life and career of Benjamin Britten but also of Suffolk, the county that inspired and nourished his creativity.

n For full updated listings visit the official website at www.britten100.org

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter