Thursday August 30 2018
Summer is the busiest time for visitors at The Red House, and the archive plays its full part in this, having hosted several hundred visitors in the weeks since the Aldeburgh Festival in June. However, we still find time for behind-the-scenes activity as well: cataloguing is constantly going on, to surface more and more of our holdings for users to search. A new tranche of descriptions has now been loaded to our online catalogue, documenting material catalogued since June and adding another 1772 records to those available to researchers.
The material newly-available comes, for the most part, from the long-running project to catalogue Britten’s voluminous correspondence, and is a tribute to the sterling work of our invaluable team of volunteers. (Some of the team can be seen on an image of a group cataloguing session here) As ever, the variety of correspondents is huge. There are, of course, letters to and from other major cultural figures. Correspondence with Leonard Bernstein spans over three decades, from the 1940s when Britten and Pears were based in the USA to the 1970s shortly before Britten’s death. There is also correspondence, spanning the 1960s and 1970s, with another close contemporary, Dmitri Shostakovich.
Among composers Harrison Birtwhistle, Lennox Berkeley, Michael Berkeley and Richard Rodney Bennett are also represented; among performers, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and John Shirley-Quirk. (The latter writes at Christmas 1975 wishing Britten a “Canal-full” new year; a reference to the holiday Britten and Pears had taken on Shirley-Quirk’s narrowboat earlier that year).
Literary figures are also represented, ranging from Vera Brittain (a single letter from 1947, discussing reaching out to build cultural bridges with Germany) to Spike Milligan.
In the latter exchange, from 1965, we catch sight of one of the great might-have-beens of Britten’s career: Milligan suggests that he might write a comic libretto of “Alice in Wonderland” for Britten, but the latter apologises that pressure of work makes it impossible for him to take up the project. (He did, however, contribute later to “Milligan’s Ark”, a collection of poems and drawings by famous people that Milligan assembled in aid of wildlife causes).
There are towering figures from other walks of life, too, perhaps most notably in a 1958 exchange of letters with Jawaharlal Nehru, founding Prime Minister of India.
And there are thousands of letters relating to less elevated concerns and individuals: the ordinary administrative minutiae of Britten’s life, but also the individuals who write to this public figure with questions, suggestions or in some cases simply to express their love of his music. A whole file of 1969 letters from children at Broad Lanes primary school in the Black Country describes how their teacher has introduced them to his music, what they liked about it and how sorry they are to hear of the fire at Snape Maltings, recalling Britten’s lifelong commitment to writing music that could be performed and loved outside the concert hall, by as wide an audience as possible.
In addition to this newly-catalogued correspondence, we have also added some extra features to existing catalogue records. Images have been added in bulk to descriptions of performance programmes: over five hundred new images, attached to 92 different records, which document not merely the works and performers, but the rich detail to be gleaned from the advertisements around them. In 1933, for instance, we see not merely who performed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden at the Old Vic, and that the wigs were provided by ‘Bert’, but also that the buffet at Waterloo Station was open until midnight for a snack on the way home and that for those theatre goers who chose to drive there was a garage offering parking a few minutes’ walk away.
In another refinement to existing records, for those records describing Britten manuscripts deposited here by the British Library we have added links through to their digitised facsimiles on the BL website. As an example, in this record describing the fair copy of Britten’s 1932 Sinfonietta the link can be seen in the Copies field, taking the researcher straight through to the relevant images.
Whilst this update was being written, of course, the work of expanding and refining the catalogue was still going on: there will be yet more unexpected names to flag for researchers in our next upload of data.
By Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library