Wednesday October 23 2019
For the last Box of Delights of 2019, and to contrast with the political turmoil around the world, we have selected items that highlight Britten’s interesting connections with the world of politics.
Programme for the 8 December 1949
Britten and Pears were lifelong pacifists. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britten and Pears left the UK for America, and on returning in 1942, registered as a conscientious objectors. Throughout their lives they advocated against conflict and the use of weapons of any sort.
In 1949 Britten and Pears gave a concert in New York for the benefit of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resisters League. They took the opportunity to set out in the programme their own manifesto against war, a particularly important stance when viewing the destruction that could occur at the dawn of the nuclear age.
Fanfare for Europe
On 3 January 1973 a concert, ‘Fanfare for Europe’, was held at the Royal Opera House in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. This was followed by a week long series of celebratory events. The end of the concert at Covent Garden was marked by the rousing finale to Britten’s Spring Symphony. The soloists were Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Heather Harper. There were also readings from works by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens by Sybil Thorndike, Laurence Olivier, Judi Dench, and Max Adrian.
As well as the concert programme, an official programme book was published to acknowledge Britain’s entry into the EEC. This includes an introduction by Prime Minister Edward Heath, and 1970s adverts from companies and corporations celebrating the entry into the European markets.
Letters from 10 Downing Street
In the last year, Britten’s correspondence has been catalogued, including letters received by Britten which offer news of nominations for, and success in, winning a variety of awards. These include letters from the government offering him, on behalf of the Queen, two significant Honours. This month we have included letters from two of Britain’s prime ministers: Winston Churchill and James Callaghan.
In 1953, Winston Churchill wrote to Britten informing him that his name had been put forward to receive the Companion of Honour. Britten had completed his opera Gloriana, dedicated to the Queen in the year of coronation and written as part of the celebration of her accession to the throne. Included in this file is a letter regarding the Queen accepting a dedication for Gloriana.
Twenty-three years later, Britten received a similarly worded letter from Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, regarding Britten’s nomination for a life peerage. Britten accepted, becoming Baron Britten of Aldeburgh. He is the first composer to be awarded a life peerage. Britten and Pears invited their closest friends to The Red House to celebrate and a wonderful garden party was held on the 12 June 1976, the day on which the news was formally announced.
Britten and the Russian Ministry of Culture
In May 1962 War Requiem premiered at Coventry Cathedral. It is a work that Britten considered one of his most important pieces, and it was regarded as such by many of his fans too.
War Requiem was written as part of the celebrations to mark building of the new Cathedral (the 500-year-old one had been destroyed during the Second World War). The work features verse by the First World War poet Wilfred Owen, which acts as a kind of commentary on the Mass for the Dead. Britten would often write with specific voices in mind. The work was written for tenor Peter Pears, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskeau and Russian soprano Galina Vishnevsakaya.
In September 1961 Britten wrote to the Soviet Ministry of Culture, asking permission to allow Vishnevskaya to sing in the premiere. With political tensions between East and West reaching new heights, permission was denied and she was replaced at short notice by soprano Heather Harper. Eight months later, however, Decca recorded War Requiem and this time Vishenvskaya was given permission to take part in the recording.
In 1964, War Requiem won three Grammy Awards. It was the fastest selling classical album of its time. Britten’s subsequent opera Owen Wingrave followed the same pacifist line. Owen Wingrave, which was commissioned as a TV opera by the BBC, also had an anti-war and anti-military message. This opera had a global impact, broadcast throughout the European Union and the USA.