Friday December 22 2017
In 2018 we are following in Benjamin Britten’s footsteps and taking a trip to the USA. The years 1939-1942 are a fascinating and formative period of Britten’s life, and our exhibition looks at the places he lived and worked, the music he composed, the extraordinary people he met – and why he came home.
In May 1939 Britten travelled from Southampton to Quebec on the fairly luxurious SS Ausonia with Peter Pears, seeking to escape Europe which he considered to be ‘finished’—artistically, as far as Britten was concerned, but also in terms of rising fascism and political unrest. Britten sought and to some degree achieved professional success while in the USA: he composed some of his most well-crafted and enduringly popular works, and had a number of premieres given by high-profile orchestras. At the same time, his relationship with Peter Pears blossomed from friendship to romance, and they also began to establish a professional partnership while Pears’ voice was flourishing under the guidance of a new teacher. They both lived at various times with the remarkable Mayer family in Amityville, Long Island, and as part of a bohemian household in Brooklyn.
However Britten was often troubled by homesickness, and increasingly disappointed at the lack of sustained or embedded success. His first stage work Paul Bunyan, a collaboration with WH Auden, was not well received and attempts at getting work in Hollywood failed at the first step. While on a trip to California Britten came across an article about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe, and was seized both with the idea that Crabbe’s lengthy poem The Borough (a fictional version of Aldeburgh) could provide material for an opera, and also by the desire to return to that part of the world again. In March 1942 he and Pears returned to a much changed UK on board the rickety MS Axel Johnson, part of a highly vulnerable naval convoy across the Atlantic.
Once home, they registered as Conscientious Objectors and both had tribunals to avoid conscription. Britten worked as a composer for the BBC, writing incidental music for radio broadcasts aimed at encouraging further US participation in the war, and at the same time began to compose his Suffolk opera—Peter Grimes, which was premiered a few months after the war ended in June 1945. It had been commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and originally intended for an American premiere—this in fact happened in 1946 at Tanglewood, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (whose centenary falls in 2018).
Features of the exhibition include a giant map of the USA, showing where Britten lived, and the various trips he made – including a 9-day journey in a very unstable Ford V8 from Washington to San Diego. On display will be a typically eclectic collection of memorabilia from this period: it is well known that Britten didn’t throw anything away, and our archive includes, along with letters to and from family and friends, his travel permits, hospital bills, and receipts for tyres.
Archival material relating to Paul Bunyan and Peter Grimes will be displayed, as well as the manuscript for one of Britten’s most well-known Christmas pieces – A Ceremony of Carols. It’s amazing to think of it, but Britten composed this reflective and beautiful choral work on the return journey across the Atlantic, under imminent threat of submarine attack.