Thursday April 11 2019
Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library, writes about a recent acquisition for the Britten-Pears Foundation Collection.
Last June, the Britten-Pears Foundation was alerted to an original Britten score due to be auctioned in Paris. It formed part of a huge sale of music-related manuscripts spanning the period from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth: on the first pages of the alphabetical listing of items, Britten rubbed shoulders with Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms and Chopin. After some rapid consultation over pricings and resources, an online bid went in a few minutes before the deadline, and a couple of days later we were alerted that we had been successful.
The score was for a Britten realisation of Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, produced for a November 1945 concert at the Wigmore Hall that marked 250 years since Purcell’s death. The piece links to Britten’s own repertoire in interesting ways. The text, by Nahum Tate (a one-time poet laureate who is most famous, or notorious, for rewriting King Lear with a happy ending) is a dramatisation of the Virgin Mary’s feelings when her twelve-year-old son Jesus goes missing in the Temple: the motif of the child in danger, of course, being one that crops up repeatedly in Britten’s work. The song is arranged for high voice and piano (rather than the harpsichord of Purcell’s original), and was sung at the Wigmore Hall by the soprano Margaret Ritchie, who was later to create roles in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring: it is to her that Britten dedicates the piece, and it was perhaps to her that the score was given after the concert. Interestingly, although the piece was not written with Peter Pears’ voice in mind, the score shows Britten and Pears’ normal practice for vocal pieces, with Britten’s hand writing the music and Pears’ the words: an indication of how collaborative their relationship was, with Pears’ experience as a singer presumably called upon for the way that the words were to be rendered.
The background story to the sale turned out to be a colourful one. In 1990 a French stamp-dealer and former insurance trader named Gérard Lhéritier founded a manuscript dealership named Aristophil, which was presented to the public as an investment opportunity: Aristophil would purchase manuscripts on behalf of investors, and subsequent increases in their value would enable dividends to be paid to its shareholders. Over the ensuing decades, Aristophil accumulated an awe-inspiring collection: the breadth and quality of the musical component sold in June was matched by literary material, with original manuscripts by Balzac, Proust and de Sade (most notably, the original holograph of the 120 Days of Sodom, which de Sade himself believed had been lost in the Bastille). However, some experienced dealers asked questions about how Aristophil was able to deliver such high dividends, regularly outperforming the market. The French state began to have the same questions: in November 2014 Lhéritier’s premises were raided by government agents acting on the suspicion that Aristophil was simply a Ponzi scheme, with new investors’ payments being used to pad out existing investors’ dividends. The collection was confiscated by the French state and Lhéritier indicted on charges including fraud, money-laundering and deceptive marketing practices. His trial has yet to take place, but in the meantime the French state has been selling off the enormous Aristophil collections, as a gradual process over a period of years so as not to saturate the market. (Some items designated of national importance have been assigned to the national library or similar institutions.) Although we do not know the precise chain of custody of our score in the more-than-seventy years since Margaret Ritchie sang this piece at the Wigmore Hall, at some stage – perhaps sold by her family – it had become part of Aristophil’s collection.
Our new manuscript thus had a colourful back-story; from a practical point of view, most significantly it was the property of the French state and now considered a “bien culturel” (cultural asset) of the Republic. Permission would be needed before it could leave France: no sooner had we acquired the piece than we found ourselves wondering if an export licence would be granted.
News came in the autumn that the licence had been given, and we set about investigating how to get the materials to Aldeburgh. Quotations from art couriers soon made it clear that this would be a terribly expensive method of getting it back, coming close to the amount we had paid for it: for small, portable items like this, it became clear that the cheapest and simplest thing is to go in person.
As a result, on 19 December I found myself in London’s Eurostar terminal, setting off for Paris with a specially-assembled manuscript carrying kit comprising an acid-free archive box and a French supermarket bag-for-life, plus my most recent payslip to vouch for my being here to represent the Britten-Pears Foundation. It was a brisk visit to the City of Light, with time on the streets considerably shorter than time on the train. There was a startled moment when the Ader-Nordmann auction-house turned out to be swathed in scaffolding and, finding the main door out of use, I wondered briefly if they had done a flit, in keeping with the shady story around this whole collection; however, once the door was located my schoolboy French turned out to be adequate and the transaction was a matter of moments. The score handed over, complete with formal export licence in case of any questions at the border, it went into the archive box, which was secured with gaffer-tape and secreted in the supermarket bag. Despite this subterfuge, I was extremely conscious that I was now carrying ten thousand Euros’ worth of cultural assets, no matter how well-disguised, and it was straight onto the bus to the Gare du Nord where, several coffees later, I found myself back on the Eurostar. In London again, the afternoon visit to Paris felt like a dream, with only a weighted archive box (and a bag of Madeleines for my colleagues picked up in the Paris equivalent of a Tesco Metro) reassuring me that all this had really happened.
The score is now safely in the archive at The Red House, not far from where it may have been created. It has had a long journey, passing perhaps through various private collections and then taking an exotic detour to France through the glamorous but fishy Aristophil collection, but finally it is where it belongs and available to the public.