Wednesday May 9 2018
During the open season at The Red House the Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive is open to the public. Once a month we select a box of interesting items from our collection to show drop in visitors, known affectionately as the Box of Delights. Anyone is welcome to see this box in the Archive, 1-5pm Tuesday to Friday.
This month’s box is themed around the statement ‘Blimey! Look who’s here!’ The archive holds a large collection of correspondence to and from Britten and Pears, which you can read more about here. There’s plenty of correspondence from fellow musicians and members of Britten and Pears’ circles; but we also hold a few items from famous people you might never have expected. We’ve selected a few of these correspondents for this month’s box. So, without further ado: Blimey! Look who’s here!
The first person in the Box of Delights is politician Tony Benn, who wrote to Britten in 1961 to ask for support during a political campaign.
In 1960 Benn had inherited a peerage entitling him to sit in the House of Lords. Benn had been MP for Bristol South East for the past ten years; the peerage disqualified him from continuing as an MP.
Benn originally fought this by trying to renounce his peerage, but he was not allowed to do this. He then campaigned for a change in law. In a statement sent to Britten in 1961, he writes that ‘the personal and constitutional absurdity’ of not allowing anyone to renounce a peerage was ‘a symbol of a deeper malaise in Britain today: namely, our failure to adapt ourselves to modern life’. He asked Britten for ‘a quotable message of support […] I should be proud to have it.’
Britten complied glowingly, writing that ‘It would be a tragedy if a person of your sterling abilities and strong fighting qualities would be lost to the House of Commons’. After two more years of campaigning, the 1963 Peerage Act permitted hereditary peers to renounce their titles. Benn renounced his peerage 22 minutes after the act was passed, and was re-elected as an MP the same year.
In 1965, Vanessa Redgrave wrote to ask for Britten’s support in a campaign against the Vietnam War.
Vanessa Redgrave’s letter asks if Britten will sign a statement to be published in the Times calling for the cessation of raids on North Vietnam. According to the statement, ‘it is our deep belief that for the United States to seek to achieve a solution in Vietnam on solely military terms and at the expense of continued suffering both to Vietnamese and to Americans, will vitiate whatever victory might be achieved and incur a generation of bitterness and distrust.’
We don’t hold the composer’s reply, but we do know what he thought about the idea: on the top of the letter is written, in Britten’s distinctive handwriting, one word: ‘Yes!’ The statement, with Britten as a signatory, was published in the Times on Thursday 23 December 1965.
In 1974 Philip Larkin wrote to Britten to suggest they collaborate on a choral piece.
Larkin’s letter suggested they create the piece to celebrate the opening of the Humber Bridge, originally due for completion in 1976. Evidently a fan of Britten, Larkin writes that he ‘such a collaboration would constitute a very great honour for me personally.’ Somewhat understatedly, Larkin outlines the reasons that he was asked to participate in the project: ‘simply… that I have lived in this neighbourhood for nearly twenty years, and have written one or two poems about it.’
Unfortunately for Larkin, by 1974 Britten’s health had deteriorated rapidly: the previous year he had suffered a stroke during a heart operation, and was never to fully recover. The reply to Larkin is from Rosamund Strode, Britten’s assistant, apologising that Britten was too unwell to write a reply himself, and also too unwell to take Larkin up on his suggestion.
It’s now 1975, and the film company Hawk Films writes to Britten to ask for the rights to use a piece. The piece in question was a performance by Britten and Rostropovich of a Schubert Sonata; the film, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
The letter also has a note in the handwriting of Rosamund Strode who, as we mentioned above, was Britten’s assistant at this time. The note explains to Britten that Kubrick – who’d already achieved enormous critical success with Dr Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – was a ‘thoroughly reputable producer’ who, she wrote, ‘makes good films’.
While Britten was willing to give permission for this, the recording never made it to the film’s now-famous soundtrack.
The final correspondent in the Box of Delights is none other than Hollywood actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.
The single letter we have from her dates from 1978, two years after Britten’s death; it’s addressed to Peter Pears.
In June that year, Kelly participated in a concert for the Aldeburgh Festival. The concert, called ‘Theme and Variations’, featured musical performances interspersed with poetry recitations: Pears and Kelly were both billed as performers. The poems included works by Langston Hughes, Siegfried Sassoon and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – though sadly we don’t know which performer read what.
After the recital Kelly wrote to Pears in distinctive rounded script to thank him for the evening. ‘Your festival is outstanding’, she wrote on the 14 June 14 1978, a few days after her performance. ‘I am only sorry we were not able to stay longer to see more of it… The music was lovely with our poetry and made it a very special programme. I was so pleased to take part’.
The Box of Delights is available for anyone to view in our reading room between 1 and 5pm, Tuesdays – Fridays.