Monday June 1 2020
As one would expect, the Britten Pears Archive strong room is full of stories about works Britten composed. Just as interesting though are the stories about works which weren’t written. Some projects got no further than a letter suggesting them to Britten. Such a letter was sent from poet Philip Larkin in 1974 explaining that he had been asked to write a poem to celebrate the opening of the Humber Bridge, scheduled for 1976, and proposing that Britten set it to music. Britten’s assistant Rosamund Strode replied that Britten’s health did not permit him to accept the commission, or even to write back in person – he was recovering from his heart operation of the previous year. In the end the opening was delayed until 1981, over 4 years after the composer’s death, and Larkin’s poem, Bridge for the Living, was set for orchestra and chorus by Anthony Hedges, a fellow colleague at the University of Hull. The archive also holds a 1965 letter written by Spike Milligan proposing that he and Britten collaborate on a comic opera of Alice in Wonderland, with Milligan writing the libretto. Others sent Britten librettos they had written – there are 2 boxes on the strong room shelves labelled ‘Libretto material: unsolicited or unset’. The collections reveal many projects that Britten did not have the health, time or inclination to work on.
Other projects progressed beyond a letter of proposal but did not make it to completion include operas based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Shakespeare’s King Lear and The Tempest, and a children’s opera based on Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr Tod. Anna Karenina progressed as far as a fully worked libretto but no music was written. The archive holds several drafts, from the mid 1960s, of the libretto written by producer Colin Graham. One typescript includes annotations and revisions by Britten himself showing that he and Graham had worked on the project together.
The Archive holds an intriguing volume concerning another opera which didn’t come to fruition. This is Pears’ 1926 edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. In July 1946 Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia was premiered at Glyndebourne – amongst the performers were Peter Pears as Male Chorus, Joan Cross as Female Chorus and Kathleen Ferrier as Lucretia. John Christie, founder of Glyndebourne Opera, suggested that Britten write a new chamber opera to be performed there the following year and Cross suggested Mansfield Park as the subject.
Inside the back cover of this volume Britten listed the roles he envisioned for his new opera (to be called Letters to William) and the singers he imagined singing these roles. This is a typical process for Britten – he composed operas knowing before he started who would sing the roles and had their particular voices in mind when he wrote the parts. All the singers listed in this volume had taken part in the premiere of Lucretia: Owen Brannigan, Margaret Ritchie, Joan Cross, Nancy Evans, Anna Pollak and Pears with Ferrier suggested as taking the lead role of heroine Fanny Price.
Work on the opera progressed with Ronald Duncan, the librettist for Lucretia, writing a draft libretto of Act One. Pears made notes on the characters which can be found tucked inside his volume. However, that’s as far as the opera got. Britten had written only a couple of bars of music for the opera on the page opposite his draft cast list.
By the time of the 1947 Glyndebourne season, Britten with Eric Crozier and John Piper – producer and designer from the previous year’s Lucretia – had formed a new independent opera group – The English Opera Group (EOG). Significant financial losses from the UK and continental tour of the opera had caused tensions with Christie and management and financial links with Glyndebourne had been dissolved. It was Britten’s newly founded Group that premiered his new opera at Glyndebourne in June 1947 – not Mansfield Park but Albert Herring with Crozier as librettist adapting a story by Guy de Maupassant. Many of the singers from Britten’s draft cast list for Mansfield Park took part with Peter Pears in lead role of Albert.
However, this 1926 volume shows that Britten was initially committed to this Austen project and also that he liked to write for and work with a particular close circle of singers – a practice which he continued. Indeed, all the singers in Britten’s cast list were founding members of the EOG, the majority singing with Britten and the Group for many years. Also typical with this project is that we see Pears involved with a new Britten opera from the beginning, providing the volume from his library and making notes on the characters.