Tuesday March 6 2018

Fifty years ago, in 1968, Kenneth Clark made his ground-breaking Civilisation series for BBC2: a ‘personal view’ of western arts that set a template for large-scale television surveys of knowledge.

‘What is civilisation?’ asks Clark in the opening moments of the series. He is, he confesses, unable to define in abstract terms ‘all the life-giving human activities we lump together under the word civilisation‘; but, he adds, turning towards Notre Dame, ‘I think that I can recognise it when I see it.’

Clark’s series focuses very much on the western visual arts, with some diversions into music and literature.  It is ‘a personal view’ and he concedes in the opening scene that there are alternative viewpoints: he was, after all, filming in Paris during the riots of 1968, when many of the intelligentsia sided with those who were attacking the established order. It is significant that the BBC’s revisiting of the subject for its anniversary is called Civilisations, and emphasises the plurality of cultural communities that can be covered by the term.

An inscription from one of Britten’s extensive collection of miniature scores. Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation.

Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, of course, as a composer and performer of classical music, were very much part of the world of Western ‘high’ culture on which Clark focused. But the Britten-Pears Foundation holdings, in particular the archives, reveal that this was only one of the cultures to which they belonged.

In addition to their lives as international musical celebrities, Britten and Pears were profoundly rooted in and attached to their local Suffolk environment.

From Britten’s household receipts for purchases made in local shops and organisations in 1966. Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation.

As gay men at a time when their relationship was illegal, they had the option of attaching themselves to a part-clandestine, mutually-supportive gay network.

As a pacifist, Britten stood against aspects of the status quo and placed himself within a different, oppositional culture.

And for Britten there is also very much a sense of relating not merely to his cultural contemporaries but to the past: of the great composers of the past as his peers, of a dialogue with them and with the writers such as Hardy or James on whose work he draws for ideas.

These five different cultures overlap in Britten and Pears, and in the Britten-Pears Foundation collections: this exhibition seeks to illustrate all five and to draw a rounded picture of the different ‘civilisations’ to which Britten and Pears belonged.

The Civilisations Festival at The Red House, Aldeburgh runs from Tuesday 6 – Saturday 10 March 2018.

Image: Presentation of the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Lowestoft in 1951. Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation.