Tuesday May 26 2020

When we visit someone’s house, is anyone able to resist checking out the contents of the shelves and drawing conclusions about the owner from the books there? During the coronavirus shutdown, of course, video calls and interviews have allowed us to scrutinise the books of colleagues and celebrities, peering behind someone’s head to make out the letters on a spine beyond them. A book collection is a map of someone’s thoughts, tastes and influences. Visitors to The Red House have this experience as they look about Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ Library.

What’s true for books holds good for other things of course: our listening habits are just as revealing. Among the materials in the archive at The Red House is Britten and Pears’ record collection: long runs of vinyl LPs, filling numerous shelves in a climate-controlled strongroom.

A composer and a tenor: you’d expect the bulk of their records to be classical music, and of course that’s true. The collection is an encyclopedia of classical music, from the Baroque to the two men’s own day, with many performances by their friends and contemporaries. Other genres are represented, however: Britten had a long-standing interest in Indian music, and there are several LPs of this including some by the sitar virtuoso Ustad Vilayat Khan, who performed at the Aldeburgh Festival in the 1950s. Interestingly, too, there is at least one jazz album – a 1970s triple album retrospective of the career of Duke Ellington.

Publicity photograph of Duke Ellington c.1940s. Photographer: unknown.

As a young man in the 1930s, Britten would certainly have been exposed to jazz. While part of the circle around W.H. Auden, he did write cabaret songs, and one might expect Auden, with his love of pastiche, irony and the re-use of motifs from contemporary culture, to have pushed him in the direction of jazz (Auden, of course, noted that his poem “Miss Gee” was to be heard internally to the tune of “St James’ Infirmary”). But Britten, unlike Stravinsky, Satie, Ravel or many other composers of his time, seems not to have been interested in adapting jazz harmonies or rhythms for his own music.

On the face of it, then, the connection isn’t an obvious one. However, digging deeper, one finds not influence but parallelism. Ellington, of course, is one of the most ambitious of jazz orchestrators; writing for the whole orchestra and experimenting with longer-form suite compositions such as Black, Brown and Beige or the Far East Suite, both represented on Britten’s compilation. And in addition to Ellington moving towards classical practice in this way, we can also see some parallelisms with the jazz composer in how Britten worked. As our 2020 exhibition sets out, Britten wrote very much with particular voices and instrumentalists in mind: he wrote not for “tenor” but for Pears, the music he wrote for him adapting as Pears grew older and his voice slid lower in the register. The arrival in Britten’s circle of Rostropovich and Julian Bream meant pieces for cello and guitar that they could perform; the deaths of Kathleen Ferrier and Dennis Brain doubtless meant that Britten composed less for their particular specialisms. In the same way, Duke Ellington’s music reflects the personnel of his band: if you have Johnny Hodges in the band, you are going to write lush ballads for alto sax. Harry Carney’s baritone sax and Cootie Williams’ trumpet likewise get regular showcases. Conversely, the Ellington band never had a virtuoso bassist after Jimmy Blanton died in the 1940s, and the repertoire reflects that.

For Britten and for Ellington, then, the music is not created in the abstract: it is written for, and influenced by, a particular circle of creative musicians. One LP in a strongroom full of them illustrates how composers in different genres have a common practice: while their works may sound radically different, each would surely have recognised and respected the other’s way of working.

Archive Treasures is a weekly series brought to you by the team at the Britten Pears Archive. This post is by head of archive and library, Dr Christopher Hilton.