Obituary: John Woolford (Wulff Scherchen), 1920-2016

Wednesday August 17 2016

BPF Librarian Dr Nicholas Clark looks back on the life of a friend from Benjamin Britten’s younger years

(L-R): Wulff Scherchen, Britten and John Alston outside The Old Mill, Snape (1938-9)

(L-R): Wulff Scherchen, Britten and John Alston outside The Old Mill, Snape (1938-9)

John Woolford, a significant figure in Benjamin Britten’s life has passed away at the age of 96. Mr Woolford is better known to many students of the composer’s life by his former name Wulff Scherchen. His connection with Britten has been documented in a number of biographies, and several of Britten’s letters to him appear in Volumes One and Two of theSelected Letters series (edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, Faber and Faber 1991). Importantly, Wulff told his own story to John Bridcut for the BBC television documentary Britten’s Children (2004), and the account of his friendship with the composer was expanded in Bridcut’s book of the same name (published by Faber and Faber, 2006), from which some of the following information is drawn.

Wulff Scherchen left his native Germany, with his parents, following the increasing threat of Nazism during the mid-1930s. He first encountered Britten whilst accompanying his father, the conductor Hermann Scherchen,  to a meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music at Florence, which was later followed by an excursion to Siena, in 1934. Wulff and his mother Gustel, by this time divorced from her husband, eventually settled in Cambridge.

It was a coincidence that Wulff came to live in relatively close proximity to Britten who in 1937 purchased The Old Mill at Snape. During the summer of the following year the now eighteen-year-old Wulff re-entered Britten’s life when, after an exchange of correspondence, the composer invited him to visit. Amid what Wulff recalled as his clumsy attempts to play tennis (which frustrated the more confident sportsman Britten) and the enjoyment of listening to music in the evening, they formed a strong bond with one another. During the time that led up to Britten’s eventual departure to the USA in 1939 the composer visited Wulff in Cambridge, and the two also ventured to London together where Wulff observed some of the personalities in Britten’s circle, such as W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

“That’s Benjamin, that’s Benjamin’ said John, ‘conceiving something in his mind. […] Quite amazing, utterly amazing, deeply moving. […] Such a strong face”.

Britten’s evolving relationship with Peter Pears displaced, but did not remove, Wulff from his affection. Even when Britten and Pears journeyed to America for what would be a three year residence across the Atlantic Wulff remained important to him, as can be witnessed in some of the music from this period. Britten’s 1939 setting of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem  Antique  in the orchestral song cycle Les Illuminations bears the individual dedication  ‘To K.H.W.S’ (Wulff’s initials). And in August the same year Britten’s opus 16, a work for piano, string quartet and string orchestra entitled Young Apollo  was, as Britten implied in a letter to Wulff, partly inspired by him (although the composer eventually withdrew the work after only two broadcasts). They remained in contact during the rest of Britten’s time in America, during which Wulff began to study engineering until he was interned for six months in 1940 as an enemy alien and transported to Canada.  Upon release he undertook volunteer work for the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. He met up with Britten again after the composer’s return to England in 1942, but by this stage the intensity of their friendship had decreased. Changed circumstances, the fact that Britten and Pears were now life partners, the length of Britten’s absence in the USA all inevitably contributed to a gradual drifting apart. Nevertheless, Britten’s friendship remained important and clearly for Wulff it endured. He wrote to the critically ill Britten in November 1976, recalling that idyllic time spent together in Snape in 1938. His letter was answered by Pears who confirmed that the composer was dying, but that he had been ‘touched’ by the fact that Wulff had written to him. This is only one of an extensive series of letters between the two whose origins date back to the 1930s. Held in the Britten-Pears Foundation Archive, this extraordinary set of correspondence documents what Wulff recalled as a wonderful, seminal friendship. Indeed, it has provided researchers with unique insight into one of Britten’s first and most influential relationships.

As Bridcut explains, Wulff married Pauline Woolford, who he met whilst she was working as a radar operator during the war. His change of surname relates to the fact that German-born servicemen working with the allies (he was employed in the Royal Engineers’ bomb disposal unit) faced great danger if captured by the Nazis. Following their marriage, John and Pauline went on to raise four children following emigration to Australia, and their family increased gradually with the arrival of grandchildren and later great-grandchildren. They were together for seventy-two years, until Pauline’s death in January of this year.

John’s final ‘meeting’ with Britten occurred when John Bridcut arranged for him to come to The Red House in the spring of 2003 as part of the filming for Britten’s Children. A lengthy interview is one of the great merits of the film, capturing first-hand John Woolford’s own vital place in Britten’s biography. While standing in Britten and Pears’s Library John, then in his eighties, looked closely at a bronze bust of the composer cast by the Austrian sculptor Georg Ehrlich. The sculpture post-dated his early friendship with Britten by several decades, but it obviously captured much of what he remembered both in terms of the composer’s physical likeness and, to some extent, his personality: “That’s Benjamin, that’s Benjamin’ said John, ‘conceiving something in his mind. […] Quite amazing, utterly amazing, deeply moving. […] Such a strong face”.