Tuesday September 17 2019
In August the Archive was delighted to receive an addition to its collections 180 letters sent from producer and librettist Eric Crozier to his wife, mezzo-soprano Nancy Evans.
From the early 1940s until the early 1950s, Crozier and Evans were central and influential figures in Britten and Pears’ lives. Crozier produced the first productions of Peter Grimes in 1945 and The Rape of Lucretia in 1946. He continued to work closely with Britten as librettist of Albert Herring (1947), Saint Nicolas (1948), Let’s Make an Opera (1949) and, with EM Forster, Billy Budd (1951). Crozier was also a co-founder of the English Opera Group in 1947 and of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Evans was a founder member of the Group, sharing the role of Lucretia with Kathleen Ferrier in the first production of the opera and creating the role of Nancy in Albert Herring. She continued to sing with the Group until 1953, also performing in Arthur Oldham’s realisation of Love in a Village, and Britten’s realisations of Dido and Aeneas and The Beggar’s Opera. She and Crozier married in 1949.
Crozier’s letters to Evans cover this period, the majority dating from 1946 to 1954. The period from the mid to late 1940s in particular was a time of close collaboration, and genuine friendship and affection, between Crozier and Britten. They spent much time together, talked a lot, and went on holiday together. In his letters Crozier describes many details of the time spent with Britten, their ideas and work. He also mentions many other friends and colleagues represented in our collections including EM Forster, Basil Coleman, Ralph Hawkes, John and Myfanwy Piper, Anne Wood, the English Opera Group, and of course, Peter Pears. Our researchers and visitors will undoubtedly find this correspondence useful and interesting. The letters are exceptionally easy to use as Crozier wrote the date and location of writing at the top of each letter (rare with letters in our holdings!) and he also made an index of their content.
Letters from 1946 until summer 1947 are often sent from 3 Oxford Square, the London flat which Pears had bought (Crozier had the use of a room on the top floor), or from Snape Mill when Crozier visited Britten. Later letters are sent from Crag House where Crozier was living with Britten. There were plans to convert the top floor of Crag House into a flat for Evans and Crozier to move into once they were married – this didn’t happen and Crozier moved instead into a cottage in Southwold in 1949. From this point the majority of his letters are sent from the couple’s home in Southwold, and then Great Glemham, to Evans whilst she was touring with the English Opera Group, away giving recitals or staying in London.
Sometimes Crozier sent a letter from his own travels. Whilst on a trip to Dublin with Britten in December 1947 Crozier wrote on a postcard to Evans ‘We’ve had a long night’s sleep (12 hours) and are much better. Now we are off looking for more lullabies in the 2nd hand book shops’. He followed this with a further letter ‘Ben and I do nothing but go to bookshops, walk about and eat wonderful food. And talk of NICOLAS, the film, and plans for other works including a cantata on DAVID at some time’. They were searching lullabies for a song cycle Britten was composing for Evans: the work, A Charm of Lullabies, was completed that month with Evans giving the first performance in January 1948 in The Hague.
It is evident from Crozier’s letters that he and Britten frequently discussed plans for compositions. An interesting letter which Crozier wrote to Evans from Amsterdam on 28 February 1948 reads ‘It’s perhaps not strange that Ben and I both had the idea separately of a work in memory of Gandhi – and Ben has cancelled the American tour very largely so that he can settle down to write it. He wants it to be a Requiem, using the traditional Latin words of the Requiem Mass, with linking interludes that I think he will ask me to write for him… He’s on fire with the whole idea and says it will really be his Opus 1’. Britten’s plans to commemorate Gandhi with a requiem came to nothing, however when he was commissioned to write a work to mark the consecration of the new cathedral in Coventry he reignited these ideas with his War Requiem.
Britten and Crozier’s close relationship ended in the late 1940s. Crozier first wrote to Evans about this ‘estrangement’ and new ‘lack of easy and informal approach to each other’ in August 1948. By 1949 Crozier had realised that their relationship was ‘outworn’ and in July that year he wrote to Evans concerning her thoughts about leaving the English Opera Group when he himself had parted from the Group. Crozier wrote ‘It has always been a great strength, and a potential weakness, for the Group to be built entirely upon Ben. Strength, because he is a genius: weakness, because by temperament he is inclined to form strong aversions against close friends and to be unable to tolerate them thereafter. This is not deliberate on his part: it just happens, and must be accepted’.
Britten however continued to work with Crozier alongside EM Forster on the libretto of Billy Budd and during this time Crozier reported to Evans that their ‘relationship over Billy Budd is, as I told you, splendid and the work has flourished in complete harmony and with a feeling of confidence and respect among the three of us’ – outside the work, Crozier however found their relationship strained and the situation ‘unpleasant’.
Crozier writes about the difficult end to their friendship but there is also much evidence in these letters of everything the two men achieved in the days when they worked and lived closely together.
Later in their lives there was a reconciliation with Britten and the couple were invited to the garden party at The Red House to celebrate Britten’s peerage in June 1976. Evans had since 1973 been actively involved in Pears’ masterclasses for singers at Snape Maltings which led to the foundation of the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in 1977 where she codirected the courses for singers.
These letters provide a fascinating insight into the lives and work of Crozier, Evans and Britten through the 1940s and 1950s – we are pleased to be able to add them to our collections and make them available to visitors and researchers. The letters will be added to the papers of Crozier and Evans already held at The Red House – details of these can be found on our online archive catalogue.