Music for a While: Benjamin Britten at the V&A

While rummaging through a box of old photographs I chanced upon this one of the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) taken at recital they gave at the V&A.

Tenor Peter Pears and pianist Benjamin Britten

Tenor Peter Pears and pianist Benjamin Britten on stage during a recital in the Raphael Cartoon gallery. V&A Archive, accession no. A0212. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Seeing that 2013 is the centenary of Britten’s birth – and that my only involvement so far with the Britten celebrations has been to sit restively through a production of his opera Gloriana! – I thought I’d delve into the archive to see if I could find any records – concert programmes, flyers, press cuttings etc. – that would put this photograph in a broader context.

From 1950 to 1985, the V&A hosted a regular series of chamber concerts using the Lecture Theatre, garden quadrangle, Norfolk Music Room or Raphael Cartoon gallery (the Strad magazine described the latter as ‘the most pleasant setting of any in London’); concerts are still mounted occasionally in connection with specific exhibitions. These concerts attracted distinguished musicians whom we would acknowledge now to be among the greatest of the twentieth century, such as Dame Myra Hess, Wilhelm Kempff, Yehudi Menuhin and Jacqueline du Pré.

Jacques Orchestra concert in the Quadrangle, 1950

Jacques Orchestra concert in the Quadrangle, 1950. V&A Archive, MA/32/283 Guardbook neg. H1490. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early 1950s Britten regularly accompanied Peter Pears on the piano at the V&A, although Britten’s name first appears in the concert files as a composer: ‘A Ceremony of Carols’ was included in a concert given by the Jacques Orchestra on 10 December 1950, while his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was performed on 4 March 1951. The Times published a lukewarm review: the Serenade ‘has had better performances than this one,’ the critic wrote, ‘Mr. Brain had bad luck with one unconcealable note … though he compensated for it by masterly playing throughout the rest of the cycle; Mr. Pears was singing at a disadvantage as a result of Mr. Sherman’s underestimation of the strength of the orchestral accompaniment in such a resonant hall’.

Under the auspices of the English Opera Group, of which he had been a founding member in 1947, Britten made his first appearance on the V&A’s concert platform on 21 October 1951 in a performance (with Peter Pears) of two of his song cycles, the Michaelangelo Sonnets and Donne Sonnets, and a selection of songs by Henry Purcell (as realised by Britten; in 1954, the critic for the Observer characterised these realisations as ‘songs of his own on tunes by Purcell, done with a Beethovenish wilfulness’!).

The English Opera Group Concerts flyer

The English Opera Group Concerts flyer. V&A Archive, ED 84/319. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On Sunday 3 February 1952 the V&A was the stage for the London premiere of Britten’s Canticle II ‘Abraham and Isaac’ for alto, tenor and piano. With the room ‘full to bursting,’ The Scotsman’s critic reported that the work ‘was sung with expected artistic excellence’ by Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears (with Britten at the piano). The performance was recorded, although its transmission was delayed owing to the death of King George VI on 6 February. In his tribute to Ferrier, ‘Three Premieres’ (published in 1954), Britten recalled the occasion as ‘the happiest of concerts’.

This concert was followed on 17 February with a performance of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin; The Times’ music critic felt that ‘these interpreters maintained a low emotional temperature’. A typescript programme on the concert file reveals that Britten and Pears had originally intended to perform Schubert’s Die Winterreise; sadly their reason for substituting Die schöne Müllerin instead is not documented.

Three Song Recitals flyer

Three Song Recitals flyer. V&A Archive, ED 84/319. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The ‘Museum Gallery Concerts’ season October 1953 to April 1954 advertised three appearances by Britten: in recital with Peter Pears on 24 January in a programme of Purcell and Britten (including the London premiere of Britten’s song cycle Winter Words; The Scotsman praised the duo’s ‘skill, charm, and musical mastery’); a performance on 7 March, again with Pears, of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (cancelled owing to a recurrence of bursitis – inflammation of the joint – in Britten’s right arm); and a recital with pianist Clifford Curzon, scheduled for 25 April, which was also cancelled according to an annotation on a copy of the concert flyer in the Britten-Pears Archive and Library.

Although Britten’s involvement in the chamber music series continued until at least 1958, the recital of vocal works by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Hugo Wolf that he gave with Pears on 9 October 1955 seems to mark an end to his substantive contributions as a performer.

This post has focussed on Benjamin Britten; however, the concert files in the V&A Archive would provide a rich and largely untapped source of primary materials for anyone planning to investigate the post-war classical music scene, concert programming, and the Early Music revival. Any takers?!

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