How Britten found the ballet bally awful

HIGH-achievers never have a chance to rest on their laurels. There's always a new challenge on the horizon, one's own exacting standards to maintain, and fresh pastures to explore.

Steven Russell

HIGH-achievers never have a chance to rest on their laurels. There's always a new challenge on the horizon, one's own exacting standards to maintain, and fresh pastures to explore.

The 1950s were like that for Benjamin Britten.

The Lowestoft-born son of a dentist had earned his reputation as the pre-eminent British composer of his generation with his opera Peter Grimes, first performed in the summer of 1945. It was followed swiftly by The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, and then, in 1951, by Billy Budd - which in 1952 became the first televised Britten opera.

But it didn't mean the composer could pull on his slippers and spend his days smelling the roses of his Aldeburgh home - not that that was his style, for his output was prodigious.

There was added pressure to his next major work, Gloriana, because it was prompted by the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The Queen's cousin, the Earl of Harewood, had read Lytton Strachey's historical biography Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History and suggested the tale of Elizabeth I's bumpy relationship with Robert Devereux contained the germ of an opera. It would premiere at a gala performance before the newly-crowned monarch.

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It was a tough project, and it was largely thanks to the dedication of newly-arrived assistant Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav, that its writing went as smoothly as it did. As well as helping with the laborious task of preparing the vocal and full scores of the opera, she took from him many of the mundane administrative duties of running the Aldeburgh Festival.

Hard on the heels of Gloriana came The Turn of the Screw, which had its premiere at La Fenice theatre in Venice in 1954 and was broadcast live by both Radio Italia and the BBC Third Programme. Heady days . . .

The workload didn't let up. Next up was a big, big challenge: writing the music for a three-act ballet. The Prince of the Pagodas, the first evening-length score commissioned by Sadler's Wells Ballet, was a very different kettle of fish compared to an opera. Britten was in unchartered territory, and at times floundered.

Having devised his scenario, and presented a list of individual dances and their approximate duration, composer and choreographer John Cranko seems to have left Britten largely to his own devices. Cranko would pick up the baton later, starting to visualise the choreography once there was a composition draft and a piano score for dance rehearsals.

For an operatic composer used to working closely with others, it was a bit frustrating and like being thrown in at the deep end. He underestimated, badly, the time needed to write the ballet, was slowed by writers' block, and the whole experience left him scarred. In years to come, he could barely bring himself to look at it.

When the near-two-hour score was finished in early November, 1956, Britten wrote to Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine: “That b. ballet is FINISHED, & I feel as if I've been just let out of prison after 18 months hard labour.”

By the middle of the decade Britten was in his early 40s and the most successful British composer of his generation. Other works had showed signs of him taking a new direction, however, and he confessed in a letter to poet Edith Sitwell he felt “on the threshold of a new musical world”.

The composer and the tenor Peter Pears, Britten's partner in both his personal and professional lives, travelled extensively around to the Far East during the winter of 1955-56. It was a trip that provided the inspiration for the next stage of Britten's career.

The ups and downs of the period from 1952 to 1957 are told in the latest volume of Letters From A Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten. There are extracts from nearly 200 pieces of correspondence that flowed between the composer and his musical collaborators and friends. These, together with detailed explanatory text, create a book with plenty of colour and insight - more than enough to interest the general reader as well as the student of music.

Co-editor Philip Reed, formerly musicologist at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh for more than a decade and now head of publications at English National Opera, explains the composer had arrived at a kind of crossroads.

“He's written chamber operas, he's written big operas, he's written little pieces; he's refined his music and his skill and his technique. He could have carried on doing what he was doing, and I'm sure would have done it very well, but it came to a sort of … I wouldn't call it a midlife crisis exactly - or even a crisis of confidence, for it certainly wasn't that - but he came to a point where he could have taken one of many paths.

“At that point he takes a sort of sabbatical and goes on a trip more or less around the world. It's during that trip that he has first contact with live Indonesian music - gamelan music.” It's a musical ensemble usually involving instruments such as metallophones (tuned metal bars hit with mallets), xylophones, drums and gongs. There might also be bamboo flutes and string instruments.

“When he heard it in the flesh, in villages, he was completely captivated and it showed him that he could actually write music with very simple material but it could sound very complicated. It showed possibly a way forward.”

In Japan, he was fascinated by an instrument called the sho: a kind of reed mouth-organ.

“All of these experiences fed into his music. This six-month trip became a sort of epiphany: this is what he would try and do in some way.

“He'd started writing his ballet The Prince of the Pagodas and got stuck and didn't finish it before he went. When he came back, he started more or less where he'd stopped and incorporates a sort of Balinese gamelan sound. So, it had a fairly immediate effect.”

Philip says it's also interesting to note how a serious classical composer such as Britten had become part of mainstream consciousness in a way that's inconceivable today.

His star rose following the success of Peter Grimes in 1945. He and Pears gave numerous recitals in the most important European concert halls, and at major festivals. Britten had three major premieres at the Royal Opera House, and the success of the Aldeburgh Festival also kept his name in the spotlight.

He was made a Companion of Honour at the age of 39, and had lunch with the Queen. “Rather boring, because so formal, but nice people there . . .” he wrote to Pears. “The Queen is a real dear I think, & awfully easy to talk to!”)

All this earned him a reputation as a member of The Establishment. Britten appeared in newspaper cartoons and was immortalised in an affectionate satirical ditty called A Guide to Britten by cheeky chappies Flanders and Swann, the duo behind The Hippopotamus song.

“You'd read about him in Picture Post - not quite the Hello! magazine of its day but it was a popular publication. You might read about him in the Daily Express. Can you imagine reading today about (British composer) Thomas Adès's latest opera in a popular publication? You're hard-pressed to read about it in The Sunday Times, let alone anything else! It just doesn't happen any more.”

This is the fourth volume of Letters From A Life. The first was published in 1991, the next is due in two years, and the final instalment should appear in 2012 - the year before the centenary of Britten's birth.

Does anything ever pop out of the woodwork that sheds radical new light on the composer, or has his life effectively been researched and examined in the minutest and most exhaustive detail?

“Well,” says Philip, “there was quite an interesting letter recently that came up for sale at Sotheby's, from Britten to the composer Alan Bush in the 1930s. They'd worked a bit together. It was a very long letter, and I'm pleased to say the Britten-Pears Foundation purchased it, for quite a considerable sum of money.

“Bush had got some magazine going or something, and Britten was explaining his musical influences. He was spelling out, for example - and people would be surprised to see this now - how important Beethoven was to him. Beethoven was not a composer you thought Britten was much interested in. Mozart, Schubert - yes. It was very interesting to see that laid out in that way.”

Britten wasn't given to lifting the bonnet and inspecting the engine. “He had a certain suspicion of talking about music, analysing and explaining it. He was always a bit dubious about that. Music was the language Britten was most comfortable in.”

And he “spoke” articulately and prolifically.

“Even if you were a professional musician and wrote out the music Britten composed between 1944 and 1954 you'd be hard-pressed to do it. To think that in the middle of the 20th Century Britten could write

The Little Sweep, Peter Grimes, The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, The Beggar's Opera, and then Billy Budd, Gloriana, The Turn of the Screw . . . that's eight or nine operas, plus lots of other pieces as well.

“It's a fantastic amount of music, and that isn't all he's doing! He's playing much of the time, organising festivals, conducting . . . It leaves one dizzy in admiration. Music did pour out of him; he really couldn't stop it.”

Letters From A Life, Volume Four, is published by The Boydell Press at £45. ISBN 978 1 84383 382 6

AS a former celebrity resident, Benjamin Britten pops up in an attractive new book about Aldeburgh.

He moved to a converted windmill in Snape in 1938 before making his home in Crabbe Street, Aldeburgh, in the mid 1940s. In 1957 he and Peter Pears upped sticks to The Red House, near the golf course.

Theirs are just two of the many lives woven into the fabric of the town, as Diana Hughes's new publication shows.

If you thought books about local history were dull - and many are, to be honest - this is the antidote.

In the spring of 2007 Aldeburgh Museum unveiled lively new display boards depicting the town's history from early Roman times up to the present day. They were put together by Diana - one of the driving forces behind the Moot Hall museum - and local firm Herring Bone Designs. With the help of some sponsorship from The Aldeburgh Bookshop, they've now combined to adapt their successful strategy for book form.

Diana says the museum contains a wealth of information, including “a vast archive of wonderful old prints and photographs that I have ransacked to illustrate Aldeburgh's story”.

That tale is an intriguing one. There were probably small Romano-British settlements on the banks of the Alde in the second century, and a Saxon trading post later, but for centuries Aldeburgh was an unremarkable little fishing village.

Then, some time after 1500, the shifting coastline created a sheltered harbour that became a thriving centre for shipbuilding, trade and fishing. The timber-framed Moot Hall, nowadays home to the museum, was put up by the burgesses of Aldeburgh in about 1550 as a sign of their new prosperity.

But 200 years later everything had changed again. The sea had swallowed numerous homes and the Moot Hall now found itself on the edge of a newly-defined coast. The port was silting up and could no longer take big ships. Aldeburgh's star waned.

Luckily, the pendulum would swing again: when rich and aristocratic families in search of tranquillity and elegant society eschewed the busy south-coast resorts. “They built grand houses, promenaded beside the sea in all their finery, and began to dip their toes in the water,” says Diana. “They were soon followed by more modest visitors and the fortunes of the town revived.”

Pictures and text explore many elements of Aldeburgh life, including the major floods, its history of a resort, the lifeboat, the railway, the influential Garrett family, the Martello tower, Slaughden and the persecution of “witches”.

Aldeburgh Revisited: A Portrait of a Seaside Town is published by The Aldeburgh Museum Trust in association with The Aldeburgh Bookshop at £7.99. ISBN 978-0-9531004-5-3

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