Thursday April 12 2018

The Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive recently opened to drop-in visitors from 1-5pm Tuesday–Friday. Before this we were only open to researchers by prior appointment; now, we welcome anyone on site to drop in, have a look around our award-winning building, browse our books, and, if they’re interested, see a special box of items in our Reading Room.

This box, which we’ve nicknamed the Box of Delights, contains some of the Collections team’s favourite items from the Britten-Pears Archive. Although we display a lot of archival material in our exhibition space, with hundreds of thousands of items in our collection there’s much more great material that isn’t often seen. Once a month, we select a few items that feel give a sense of the exceptional breadth of our holdings. Our selection for April is themed around works that might have been.

The first item is Britten’s copy of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. While Britten never set the novel, in the back of his copy are two bars of music and a rough set list for a possible opera, with Peter Pears and Kathleen Ferrier in two of the starring roles.

Benjamin Britten Mansfield Park opera back page and character list.

The second is a selection from our store of unsolicited libretti. As Britten’s fame grew during his lifetime, so did his correspondence from fans – many of whom wrote their own opera scripts for Britten to set to music. Britten habitually worked closely with his librettists throughout the opera writing process, so he never accepted libretti sent to him in this way.

Unsolicited Libretti from fans. Courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation.

The third item is Pears’ copy of King Lear. Britten never set King Lear as an opera, but he clearly considered it at some point: in this copy are numerous markings, both in his and Pears’ handwriting, showing their thinking around the possible ways the Shakespearean tragedy could be worked into an opera. This copy is also interesting as it indicates that, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pears and Britten were both probably working on the adaptation of the text.

Peter Pears’ copy of King Lear by Shakespeare.

Finally, we have a letter from Eric Crozier to Britten in 1954, suggesting the pair create an opera of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Crozier had worked with Britten from the 1940s, directing the first production of Peter Grimes and writing several libretti, from Albert Herring (1947) to Billy Budd (1951) (written jointly with the novelist EM Forster). Alas, like the other selections in this month’s Box, A Christmas Carol never materialised.

Letter from Eric Crozier to Britten, 12 May 1954. With permission from the Literary Estate of Eric Crozier.

We hope that this brief tour will give people a more rounded sense of Britten’s extremely creative working life, as well as a sense of the kinds of things we hold. You can see the Box of Delights in the Archive all April, Tuesday – Friday, 1-5pm. Keep an eye out for our new Box of Delights in May.