Tuesday February 23 2021
‘It was amazing how quickly one warmed to this man,’ Steuart Bedford said of his first meeting with Benjamin Britten. ‘He entered our hearts very easily.’ That meeting took place in 1946 when Steuart was seven years old, in the year his mother appeared in the premiere production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. It marked the beginning of a lifelong connection with Britten and Pears, with Aldeburgh and the Festival that is now written into the history of The Red House and the Snape Maltings, and one we commemorate on his recent death.
Steuart was immersed in music from an early age. His grandmother was the opera singer, composer and later Guildhall professor of singing Liza Lehmann. As mentioned, his mother, the soprano Lesley Duff, performed in Lucretia at Glyndebourne in 1946, where she sang the role of Lucia. The following year she created the role of Emmie in Albert Herring, and as a founder member of what was by then the fledgling English Opera Group (EOG) she appeared as Mrs Vixen in the realisation of The Beggar’s Opera (1948). With such a background it was not surprising that Steuart and his older brother David focussed on music as a career. Whereas David’s path led him into composition, Steuart’s studies took him to Oxford where he was an organ scholar at Worcester College (and where he flexed his skill as a conductor with his first production, Albert Herring), and then to the Royal Academy of Music. He re-kindled that initial link with Glyndebourne by joining its staff in the mid-sixties and then in 1967 he focussed his attention on the EOG, conducting performances of The Beggar’s Opera directed by Colin Graham.
A gifted pianist, his keyboard skills can be heard on various recordings as accompanist. Britten acknowledged his ability and the two performed together. Steuart memorably played the demanding piano part and celeste for Britten in the EOG production of The Turn of the Screw at Sadler’s Wells (1971) and at the 1972 Aldeburgh Festival—the latter being the final time the composer conducted any of his operas.
During the late sixties and early seventies Steuart worked with a ‘new’ generation of Britten interpreters. It was no longer the age of his mother’s contemporaries, of artists such as Kathleen Ferrier, Joan Cross and Roy Ashton. Although he still performed with some singers from that earlier era such as Peter Pears and Jennifer Vyvyan, Steuart forged working relationships with a new circle that included Bryan Drake, Bernard Dickerson, John Shirley-Quirk, Peter Leeming, Heather Harper and Janet Baker.
This period turned out to be a pivotal moment in both his and Britten’s careers. Increasing ill-health during this time meant that performance eventually became difficult for Britten. In the ensuing years, Steuart’s experience as a conductor proved invaluable as he gradually took responsibility for the first performances of several late works.
Owen Wingrave, the BBC television commission recorded in the Maltings in November 1970, was a type of training ground for this. The opera featured a relatively small cast consisting of Pears, Jennifer Vyvyan, Sylvia Fisher, Heather Harper, Janet Baker, Benjamin Luxon, John Shirley-Quirk and Nigel Douglas. Steuart’s principal purpose was to undertake rehearsal during the day to allow the composer to conduct cast and orchestra for the television recording later. His duties on Wingrave were sometimes unconventional, but always vital. They extended to mimicking use of the weapons ‘Halberds, pistols, daggers …lances, sword-thrusts’ off camera during the dinner scene in the opera’s second act. This was for the benefit of Pears, portraying the patriarch General Sir Philip Wingrave, who had difficulty remembering the order in which the weapons appeared.
Steuart conducted the first stage production of Owen Wingrave at Covent Garden in May 1973. At this point, he was also taking full musical direction of the premiere production of Britten’s final opera Death in Venice while the composer was recuperating from heart surgery. The first performance of Death in Venice took place at the 1973 Aldeburgh Festival. Britten listened to part of a relay of the opera on the radio from Horham, his quiet retreat in Suffolk. However, the microphones picked up the intrusive noise of the revolving set. This proved too much to bear and Britten turned the radio off before the opera ended. Steuart drove to Horham to present him with a clean recording the following day, wanting him to hear the music in performance for the first time. Britten asked Steuart to conduct the 1974 studio recording of Death in Venice, and he also led the Metropolitan Opera House production later that same year. A work for which he felt an obvious close affinity, Steuart compiled an orchestral suite from the opera, Op. 88a, which he first performed with the English Chamber Orchestra at the Maltings in 1984.
Other Britten works to be introduced under Steuart’s baton were the Suite on English Folk Tunes, A time there was…, first performed at the 1975 Aldeburgh Festival and Phaedra, the cantata for mezzo-soprano and small orchestra written for Janet Baker. An important photographic record by Nigel Luckhurst held in our collections captures Phaedra’s rehearsal process, depicting the collaboration between musicians, frail composer and the composer’s assistants that brought this last major work for voice and orchestra to life.
Steuart’s knowledge of Britten’s music was extensive. He took part in innumerable performances as either keyboardist or conductor and he shared his expertise freely with successive generations of musicians. While maintaining a busy international career, Aldeburgh and Snape remained central to his personal and professional life. He worked with young players of the Britten Pears Orchestra and for several years he was an Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival with, among others, Oliver Knussen (who like Steuart had parental connections with the early EOG). His link with Aldeburgh resulted in numerous appearances at Festival venues. One of the last and most significant was his musical direction of ‘Grimes on the Beach’, the production of Peter Grimes that was the major Festival event to mark Britten’s centenary in 2013. From his ‘hide’ in the shingle Steuart directed chorus and soloists to an orchestral track he had previously recorded. This legendary event has been captured in Margaret Williams’s DVD version of the opera.
Steuart could legitimately claim insight into Britten’s musical mind. He worked closely with him, took advice, discussed interpretation and literally brought his composition to life from the page into the concert hall and opera house. As a result, he became well known as a Britten authority and was always happy to offer help whenever he was asked. He called upon insights gained from his association with Britten, never with any pretension, when conducting. He helped researchers when they were seeking answers to ‘what Britten meant’ when studying his work. And his expertise was sought on several occasions when questions arose about Britten’s music in the Archive. For instance, during recent research for a reprinting of the Sea Interludes Boosey and Hawkes approached the Archive for advice on the inclusion of an instruction in ‘Storm’. As fortune would have it, Steuart and Britten’s former assistant Colin Matthews were both visiting the collection that day and were able to provide a definitive answer on the spot.
Steuart’s remark about Britten entering his heart ‘easily’ after meeting him as a child tells us something of the special relationship that existed between them. The composer could not have foreseen how important the seven-year-old in his presence would become to introducing his work, particularly his later scores, to future audiences. Whether from the pit, concert platform or in recording, Steuart became one of the composer’s greatest advocates. His repertoire as a conductor obviously extended beyond Britten, but it is likely that he will be remembered primarily as the key interpreter of his music.
Even in later years, when poor health was taking its toll on what was once his inexhaustible energy, he took interest in performance, research, and was always keen to share memories. His loss will be felt by many in the music world, but he leaves us a legacy of recording and history that will continue to be valued for many years to come.