Saturday May 12 2018
‘Well, if you don’t take this [honour], I’ll never speak to you again!’ Rita Thomson’s response to Benjamin Britten’s slight diffidence about the offer of a life peerage, providing him with the title Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, in the County of Suffolk, in the early summer of 1976 was typically direct but undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek. The composer’s reply to her ultimatum, a simple ‘Well, I’ll have to take it then, won’t I?’ spoke volumes about the friendship they had cultivated during the two years he had been in her care. There is little doubt that Rita could sometimes be strict, even intolerant of those who couldn’t observe simple rules, but Britten placed enormous faith in her medical expertise and since his recovery from a heart valve replacement operation in May 1973 had come to rely on her judgement and advice.
Britten’s valve replacement had been the culmination of several years of ill health. By 1972 he was heavily at work on what would be his final opera Death in Venice and reluctant to interrupt composition. Following the opera’s completion, and as preparation was underway for its premiere during the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival, the composer had to divert his focus from music to the delayed operation which, it was hoped, would restore him to full health. Rita was a senior ward sister in the intensive care unit at the National Heart Hospital in London where Britten received treatment. Aware of his nervousness about the operation she assured Britten that they would ‘see it through together’. She quickly gained his trust and he soon became reliant on her willingness to look after him during his convalescence.
Although at first unsure about relinquishing her post in London, she eventually agreed to care for him when it became obvious that the new valve was not working as well as expected and constant medical supervision would be required. The operation left Britten an invalid with limited movement. He was no longer able to play the piano or conduct and, for several months, he was uncertain about whether he would compose again. Rita was one of a small circle of friends who looked after him at his home, The Red House in Aldeburgh. The circle also included his partner Peter Pears, his former assistant Imogen Holst and her successor Rosamund Strode, his domestic staff, and physician Ian Tait. When Britten did begin to compose again his staff ensured his comfort by cutting his music manuscript paper in half so that he avoided strenuous arm movement. The paper was then placed on a board on his lap so he could work in an armchair rather than at his desk. Britten’s physical condition was one of gradual deterioration and yet, as Pears once commented about him, to compose was to live. Rita oversaw Britten’s daily routine and her medical supervision during the two and a half years that followed enabled him to complete a number of major works, including Canticle V The Death of Saint Narcissus, the orchestral Suite on English Folk Tunes ‘A time there was…’ and the third String Quartet which was premiered by the Amadeus String Quartet two weeks after his death.
Rita and Britten shared serious discussions about the consequences of the composer’s health as well as many lighter moments of laughter, particularly during periods when Pears’ singing career took him away from Aldeburgh. She accompanied Britten when he travelled to London or further afield to Germany, or Norway. She joined him on his final holiday to Venice, a city that always stimulated his imagination, in November 1975, later recalling the visible excitement on his face that the first view of the city inspired as the plane neared its destination. When Britten was offered the post of Master of the Queen’s Music in 1975, following the death of Sir Arthur Bliss, Rita drafted a reply to Britten’s dictation. He was unable to write at the time and had to decline the post because of his chronic state of his health.
Rita attended rehearsals with Britten for his final Aldeburgh Festival in 1976: sitting nearby and looking on to see that he did not overtax himself as he discussed certain points about his symphonic cycle Our Hunting Fathers with conductor André Previn and soloist Elisabeth Söderström, or as he oversaw preparations for the premiere of the cantata Phaedra with mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, conductor Steuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra. She can also be viewed in photographs taken by Nigel Luckhurst of the garden party at The Red House at which the wheelchair-bound Britten celebrated the formal announcement of his peerage with family and friends on the 12 June. Rita was also in close attendance as the Amadeus played through the third String Quartet for the frail composer in The Red House Library in September. So as not to tire him the rehearsals were divided between morning and afternoon with Britten sitting in close proximity to an oxygen tank to assist his breathing. Rita asked her former colleague Susie Walton, who had retired to Aldeburgh, to help with Britten’s care as he became progressively weaker during the next three months.
The close companionship that evolved between Britten and Rita during this period equalled, but never replaced, that of Britten’s relationship with Pears. Through Rita the thread of Britten and Pears’ love was maintained. Pears was kept informed of the state of Britten’s health by way of Rita’s correspondence to him, and she wrote to Pears remarking on the revitalising quality of his correspondence: ‘Ben had a lovely time reading [your letters]. He reads me the amusing bits like when the handle came off the Gin carton!! They do cheer him up immensely and makes you feel so much nearer.’ She is singled out in the closing lines of Pears’ final letter to Britten, sent immediately before his hurried return home from Canada in November:
Much much love to you dear honey and to Rita and all the good people who are looking after you so devotedly so that I can come back quite soon now and see you sparkling & welcoming.
Your one & only PoxPox
Her awareness of Britten and Pears’ nearly forty-year symbiotic relationship is best expressed by her waking Pears on the morning of 4 December to bring him to the composer’s bedside, and then leaving them as the two men spent their last hours together.
Rita, who remained at The Red House after Britten’s death, and who nursed Pears following a stroke he suffered in 1980, retrained as a Health Visitor, becoming an important member of the Aldeburgh’s medical community. Although she herself is now limited by illness she continues to live in retirement in Aldeburgh and is looked after by neighbours, carers and her sister Marie. Her skill and medical expertise is undoubtedly recalled by many whom she looked after, but it is perhaps the story of the bond she formed with her most famous patient that best illustrates the life-giving benefit of excellent nursing care. As Pears reflected on the role of the nurse, Rita’s role, following Britten’s operation, ‘Gratitude to these angelic beings knows no bounds’.