Monday May 27 2019

This month’s box of delights is themed around Britten’s King of the May, Albert Herring. The opera Albert Herring was written in 1947, the year Britten moved from Snape to Aldeburgh. It often pays tribute to the Suffolk he knows as it mentions a number of familiar place names. The story takes place on May Day: the day Albert Herring is crowned as the May King, when no girls are worthy of winning May Queen, a title usually given to the purest girl in the village.

The first item is a book of short stories, the last of which inspired Britten to write Albert Herring; Guy de Maupassant’s Boule de Suif. This book was given to Britten by Eric Crozier, who wrote the libretto for this opera.

Britten’s copy of Boule de Suif gifted to him from Eric Crozier in 1946.

Before Eric Crozier approached Britten with Boule de Suif, Britten and Pears were considering writing an opera based on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but decided against it in favour of this more light-hearted story. Inside the book is a handwritten note from Eric Crozier explaining his idea for the short story Madam Husson’s Rose King to become Britten’s next opera as a companion piece to The Rape of Lucretia. Lucretia was written a year before in 1946 and was the first of two operas Britten had been commissioned to write by John Christie to be performed and premiered at Glyndebourne.

Note from Eric Crozier about the genesis of Albert Herring.

The second item we have included is a libretto fragment for Albert Herring. Unlike Britten’s other operas, Albert Herring has no complete surviving libretto. This fragment is from Eric Crozier’s papers, which are housed in the Britten-Pears Archive with the papers of his wife the singer, Nancy Evans, who also sang in the premiere of Albert Herring.

This fragment is small, and likely only survived because of the illustration on the back – a map to a restaurant near Leicester Square.

Map drawn on the back of libretto fragment.

It is also very much a draft of the libretto. One of the characters in this scene is named Miss Welford, who becomes Miss Wordsworth in the final version of the opera. Britten was possibly considering naming a character after his sister Beth, whose married name was Beth Welford.

Another interesting character is Lady Billows, originally played by Joan Cross. The papers of Joan Cross have recently been catalogued. Albert Herring is set in a small town named Loxford, likely inspired by the Suffolk village of Yoxford, not far from Aldeburgh, and was also where Joan Cross lived. Her character Lady Billows, is named after a man named Lionel Billows, a friend of Britten and Pears who they met during their holidays in the Alps.

Draft libretto fragment for Albert Herring.

Eric Crozier writes a letter to Hans Oppenheim giving details of the audience’s reaction to Albert Herring’s dress rehearsal and opening night. The first reviews were mixed, and some of them quite negative. Crozier reports that the dress rehearsal went well; with a ‘warm, appreciative audience’, but on the opening night, the audience was not impressed with the tone of the opera and were ‘less willing to be amused’. He summarises the newspaper reviews from The Times and The Telegraph, and unfortunately reports that one of the reviews regarded Albert Herring as an ‘ugly, common work’.

Letter to Hans Oppenheim from Eric Crozier, 1947, with reviews for the opening night.

Letter continued.

After the opening night, the cast had a party at Glyndebourne and were guided there by an arrangement of hand-painted herrings to the venue. Only one survives today and it is kept in the Britten-Pears Archive.

The only surviving hand-painted herring used for the Albert Herring after-party.

The role of Albert Herring was first sung by Peter Pears in 1947. Pears was often featured with a principal role in Britten’s operas; he was the composer’s muse and Britten would ensure he had written a part especially for Pears in most of his operas. In 1980, on Peter Pears’ 70th birthday, a celebration was held with a menu themed around Britten’s operatic characters, some of whom Peter Pears had sung.

The menu for the Peter Pears’ birthday banquet.

Opera-themed menu for Peter Pears’ 70th birthday.

These includes Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Nebuchadnezzar from The Burning Fiery Furnace, and Aschenbach from Death in Venice. These characters show Britten’s dedication to writing music for Pears and their constant collaboration throughout their lives.

Photograph of Pears at his birthday party, second left, with back to camera, sitting between Marion Thorpe and Princess Margaret of Hesse on his right.

Peter Pears as Albert Herring. Photographer: Angus McBean © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.