Friday October 18 2019
Britten’s 1975 song cycle for tenor and harp is titled A Birthday Hansel. A setting of poems by Robert Burns, it was written to mark the Queen Mother’s 75th birthday. The word ‘Hansel’ is a Scots phrase for ‘gift’, an appropriate association with the person who helped Britten understand the poems’ dialect by reading them aloud to him. Rita Thomson was herself, quite simply, a gift to the composer, and Britten never lost sight of the fact.
Rita came into Britten’s life when he underwent treatment for the heart condition that plagued him in the early 1970s. She was the ideal type of person to look after him. Professional, thorough and happy to impose a relatively strict routine for his care (which he was equally happy to abide by), she knew, in all honesty, little about him or his music when he first became her patient at London’s National Heart Hospital where she was a senior ward sister. The gravity of his illness left him worried and uncertain but Rita’s kindness made a significant impact. She assured him that they would see his ordeal through together—a phrase Britten held on to and was to repeat to her on future occasions. They soon established a bond of trust which increased as his treatment continued.
Rita promised to visit Britten on his removal from the NHH to the London Clinic where he was to recuperate. The operation to replace his failing heart valve was only partially successful and it was obvious that he would be reliant on medical supervision indefinitely. Although he received nursing care on his return to Aldeburgh there was no real substitute for the help that Rita had given and in 1974 she moved to The Red House to look after him. Just as important as the medical attention she offered was the friendship she shared with Britten. Rita had a healthy regard for rules alongside qualities of tenderness, loyalty, a genuine sense of fairness and great compassion. In short, she was the ideal nurse and, as it happened, the ideal nurse for Britten.
Rita oversaw much of his daily life in their years together. Despite his illness her care enabled him to compose (‘to compose was to live,’ as Pears remarked), and also to travel. She accompanied Britten when he observed rehearsals: a number of photographs in the collection tell us that she bore witness to several pivotal moments—such as Janet Baker’s rehearsal with Britten and Steuart Bedford for the first performance of Phaedra, or preparations for André Previn and Elisabeth Söderström’s performance of Our Hunting Fathers, both in 1976. She also observed Britten’s enjoyment of holidays, recalling the life that came into his face when they approached Venice for his last journey there in November 1975. Humour was also a benchmark of their friendship. Her giving him a choice of one of ‘six jokes’ she kept in store for him when he was downcast is just one example, while another is her playful refusal to speak to him again should he decline the peerage he was offered six months before his death.
The friendship she offered complemented Britten’s relationship with Pears—the mainstay of the composer’s life. She understood their love and provided accounts of it in stories such as that of Pears reading to Britten from his childhood copy of Kingsley’s The Water Babies in the evenings. Pears was sometimes so exhausted that he would drift into sleep in mid-sentence but she could see that Britten was content just to sit and share time with him. ‘Much much love to you dear honey and to Rita and all the good people who are looking after you so devotedly so that I can come back quite soon now and see you sparkling & welcoming.’ This was the last sentence Pears wrote to Britten, shortly before returning to him from a concert tour of North America. It was Rita’s decision to leave him holding Britten as their life together came to an end in the early morning of 4 December 1976. Her arm wrapped in Pears’ as they entered the Parish Church for the composer’s funeral a few days later shows the mutual support they gave to one another after their loss.
In 1977 Rita embarked on a new form of career when she trained as a health visitor and as such became a familiar and greatly-trusted presence in Aldeburgh. She nursed Pears when ill health eventually took its toll of him. The stroke he suffered in 1980 brought a decisive end to his performing career. Rita supervised his recovery and of course ensured that he was cared for as age and the inevitable onslaught of occasional sickness became too much for him. Rita continued to live at The Red House where she was joined by Boysie, her Jack Russell terrier, who was the last dog to take up residence there. Boysie often accompanied Pears and Rita in song, as archival photographs inform us. Such photos attest to a happy, comfortable period, much of which saw Pears working at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Snape. Rita was with Pears on the morning there was an unexpected change in his condition, and it was her task to inform the rest of the house of his death on the 3 April 1986.
As one of the people who knew both Britten and Pears in their last years she generously shared her memories with those researching their lives and work and she became an important source of vital information. Perhaps appropriately the words of Burns, whose work forms a lasting link between her and one of her two great friends, ring very true at such a time. ‘Never met—or never parted, We had ne’er been broken-hearted.’