Friday September 29 2017

Donald Mitchell, 1925-2017

Donald Mitchell, the last surviving executor of Britten’s will and one of the original Trustees of the Britten–Pears Foundation, and a founding member of Faber Music, has died at the age of 92.

Donald’s association with Benjamin Britten dates back to the early 1950s when, through the journal Music Survey, he wrote and published a number of essays on the then emerging composer’s impact on contemporary music. He was a staunch Britten advocate and in 1952 he collaborated with his life-long friend and colleague Hans Keller to edit the volume Benjamin Britten, a Commentary on his Works from a Group of Specialists – bringing together critical evaluations by performers, editors and other composers such as George Malcolm, Erwin Stein, Georges Auric, Lennox Berkeley and Imogen Holst. On one occasion the Mitchell and Keller enthusiasm for the Britten had to be notably curbed by Anthony Gishford, the editor of Boosey and Hawkes’s magazine Tempo. When both men sought a commission to write a piece in 1953 on the Coronation opera Gloriana Gishford thought they were in danger of being regarded as a ‘kind of self-appointed Britten claque’ and stood them down, much to Donald’s dismay. As fate would have it, though, both Donald and Gishford later became close colleagues when they found themselves working for Faber Music.

Donald’s writings as music critic and scholar suggest an indefatigable energy. Throughout the fifties and sixties he produced reviews, columns, essays on a host of musical subjects, but it was clear that Britten’s work remained a central focus. He established a friendship with the composer during the late fifties that was to last the remainder of Britten’s life. Britten welcomed him to what would be a brief stint as an employee of Boosey and Hawkes in 1962, but it was their working together to establish with Richard de la Mare and Peter du Sautoy of Faber & Faber a new music publishing house that forged a lasting link. In 1965 Donald was appointed first Managing Director of what was to become Faber Music, signed both up-and-coming and established composers, and promoted the business activities of Faber Music. He continued writing and reviewing but also found time to attend the annual Aldeburgh Festival, usually in the company of his wife Kathleen. Donald and Kath made frequent visits to Aldeburgh and Britten on occasion enjoyed their hospitality in London and, later on, in Barcombe, following the establishment in 1972 of a Music Department at the University of Sussex, where Donald was appointed its first professor.

Like any critic, Donald spoke his mind and was forthright about his likes and dislikes. He was a keen supporter of new music – his 1963 book The Language of Modern Music quickly established itself as a classic, but he was also an ardent admirer of past masters, principally Gustav Mahler who, like Britten, became a primary focus of many years’ study. The result of his research can be seen in the series of books written over three decades The Early Years (1958), The Wunderhorn Years (1975), and Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death (1985). Most students of Mahler’s music have at one point or another encountered, and no doubt been enlightened, by Donald’s overview.

Donald’s work on Britten, though, stands out as both pioneering and significant. He helped to establish, with Isador Caplan and Leslie Periton, the Britten–Pears Library Trust in 1973, a forerunner of what is now the Britten–Pears Foundation. He and Kathleen continued to visit the composer, especially through the years of his failing health. Donald encouraged Britten to revise the 1941 operetta Paul Bunyan, thus giving the work a new lease of life. And it was Donald to whom Britten turned following the Amadeus String Quartet’s initial rehearsal of the composer’s third and final String Quartet in the Library at The Red House in September 1976 and said, with a shrug of his shoulders, ‘It works’.

Following Britten’s death Donald engaged fully in promotion of his music both nationally and internationally. He also produced a number of publications that focused on telling the world about the composer’s life. Having been given the task of authorised biographer, a pictorial account of Britten appeared in 1978, Pictures from a Life (co-written with John Evans). But it is his work on the Letters from a Life series that will prove to be his lasting legacy in work of this kind. He took a guiding hand in three of the six volumes, working with Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke (who completed volumes four to six when Donald was no longer able to continue). The invaluable notes and commentaries that accompany Britten’s correspondence in effect comprise a biography.

One of Donald’s final visits to The Red House occurred when a small celebration took place to mark his birthday as well as those of Marion Thorpe and Rosamund Strode. The energy that stood behind such activities as those mentioned here, and they are only a small number, had receded and he was already showing signs of the illness that would soon confine him to his home in London. Yet with Kath (who passed away earlier this year) and the friends who, like him, had known Britten and Pears well, he was able to toast his long association with Aldeburgh and also celebrate many achievements in publishing and promotion. His customary farewell to staff and friends on that occasion, ‘Much love to you all’, stands as a fitting remembrance.

By Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian at the Britten-Pears Foundation

Image: Benjamin Britten and Donald Mitchell in the garden of The Red House, 12 June 1976. Photographer: Nigel Luckhurst. © Britten-Pears Foundation