At The Red House in Aldeburgh the Britten-Pears Foundation maintains one of the UK’s most important centres for music research. The archive and library holdings of manuscripts and other source materials are unrivalled in their breadth and depth by any other single composer collection. We also care for the domestic interiors of the house Britten and Pears shared here, including an extensive art collection.
Our collections are open to all, by appointment, in the Reading Room of our purpose-built Archive. This award-winning building was designed by Stanton Williams and opened in 2013, Britten’s centenary year.
The archive documents the whole of Britten’s exceptionally productive life. The wealth of material includes music manuscripts of numerous pieces of juvenilia, and almost all the mature compositions. This is supplemented by diaries, letters, writings, programmes, press cuttings and other source materials.
The development of any Britten work can be traced from initial thoughts to its performance history, including the perspectives of others key to the creative process: patrons, librettists, designers, producers, performers and, of course, Peter Pears.
The archive also holds many smaller collections and individual papers relating to Britten, his works and associates, and other aspects of twentieth-century music. They include papers of:
- Aldeburgh Music and preceding administrative bodies, 1971- . Reference ALD
- Aldeburgh Music Club, 1952- . Reference AMC
- Bernard Barrell, 1919-2005, musician, music educator and composer. Reference BRL
- Joyce Barrell, née Gedye, 1917–1989, composer. Reference BRJ
- Lennox Berkeley, 1903-1989, composer, and the Berkeley Family. Reference BKL
- Michael Berkeley, 1948-, composer and broadcaster. Reference BKM
- Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme, formerly Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, 1971- . Reference ALD
- David Brynley, 1902-1981, tenor singer. Reference NBY
- James Butt, 1929-2003, composer, pianist and conductor. Reference BUT
- Basil Coleman , 1916-2013, theatre, opera and television director. Reference CLM
- Joan Cross, 1900-1993, singer, teacher and opera administrator. Reference CRS
- Eric Crozier, 1914-1994, writer, theatrical and opera producer. Reference ECR
- Ralph Downes, 1904-1993, organist, organ designer, teacher and music director. Reference DNS
- English Opera Group and English Music Theatre Company, 1947-1980. Reference EOG
- Nancy Evans, 1915-2000, singer and teacher. Reference ECR
- Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, 1889-1960, composer. Reference GBS
- Anthony Gishford, 1908-1975, editor and director. Reference GSF
- Colin Graham, 1931–2007, opera director and librettist. Reference GHM
- Paul Hamburger, 1920-2004, pianist, accompanist and teacher. Reference HMG
- Julian Herbage, 1904-1976, musicologist and broadcaster. Reference HBG
- Gustav Holst, 1874-1934, composer. Reference HOL
- Imogen Holst, 1907–1984, composer, arranger, conductor, teacher and festival administrator. Reference HOL
- London Boy Singers Association, 1961-1966. Reference LBS
- John Nicholas Maw, 1935-2009, composer. Reference MAW
- Norman Notley, 1891-1980, baritone and singing teacher. Reference NBY
- Gladys Parr, 1892-1988, singer. Reference PAR
- Myfanwy Piper, 1911–1997, art critic and opera librettist. Reference PIP
- Erwin Stein, 1885-1958, Austrian musician and writer. Reference STN
- Marion née Stein, 1926-2014, concert pianist and co-founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition. Reference STN
- Rosamund Strode,1927-2010, singer and musical assistant. Reference SRD
- Rae Woodland, 1922-2013, opera and concert singer. Reference WDL
There are around 1,300 works in the art collection of the Britten-Pears Foundation. Landscapes and figurative subjects dominate but there are a small number of important abstracts. There are significant holdings of works by John Piper, Sidney Nolan, Christian Rohlfs, Georg Ehrlich, Mary Potter and John Craske.
Most of the collection comprises works on paper, ranging from the 18th-century visionary, William Blake to contemporary British artist, David Hockney. Works include 18th, 19th and 20th century drawings, watercolours, collages, prints and etchings by British and European artists as well as those from Asia, America, Australia and the Far East. Central are the costume and set designs for Britten’s stage works and performances by the English Opera Group.
The some 140 canvas and panel paintings are predominantly by British artists. Although outstanding works date from the 19th century – those by Constable, Lear and Sickert for example- most are 20th century and include Robert Colquhoun, Duncan Grant and Henry Lamb. Non-British 20th century artists are represented most notably by German-born, Max Ernst and the Goan, Francis Newton Souza.
The sculpture collection largely consists of bonzes by Austro-German and English sculptors with the addition of Rodin. In line with the rest of the collection, the sculptures are mostly figurative and include maquettes and sketches as well as finished works.
The embroideries of East Anglian artist, John Craske, make a quirky addition to the 19th century needleworks and appliqué pictures.
Although the BPF art collection largely comprises the personal collection of Britten and Pears, it also includes works acquired since their deaths by the Foundation. These later acquisitions either relate to Britten’s stage compositions or are works by artists inspired by Britten’s music or The Red House.
At The Red House we are fortunate to hold a fascinating and unique audiovisual archive. As well as Britten and Pears’ own record collection, we have acquired historic live recordings from the Aldeburgh Festival featuring premieres of works by many 20th century British composers – some of which have never been made commercially available. We also hold many recordings of broadcasts relating to Britten and Pears and their work, along with an extensive oral history archive.
We also seek to acquire a copy of every new commercial release of works by Britten.
There has been a long tradition of gathering oral history at The Red House – from early cassettes and hard copy typewritten transcripts to recent DVCam films and audio files.
We run an oral history programme, thanks to the work of our fantastic volunteers, capturing the memories of people who knew and worked with Britten and Pears.
Along with the rest of our audiovisual material, we are beginning the process of cataloguing and digitising the oral history archive, so it does not yet appear in our online catalogues. If you are interested in researching anything in the collection, please contact us.
For similar projects, visit Oral History – Aldeburgh Voices, a wonderful oral history resource by the Aldeburgh and District Local History Society, including recordings of interviews with people from Aldeburgh.
Britten and Pears were of a generation where things were repaired rather than discarded and The Red House overflows with possessions accumulated over their lifetimes: furniture, textiles, books, maps, souvenirs, ceramics, artworks, coins and even toys and games.
Britten and Pears moved here in 1957 and lived there for the rest of their lives. After Pears died in 1986, the home they had created continued to be lived in by Rita Thompson, Britten’s nurse. She was joined at various times, such as during the Aldeburgh Festivals, by musicians, friends and trustees. The house continued to be looked after by Britten and Pears’ last housekeepers, employed by the Britten–Pears Foundation. It is to this continuity of care that we owe the authenticity of the Red House interiors.
Although some elements have been lost or changed, (alterations were made to some upstairs rooms and the kitchen transformed into a new dining room in c.2000) it remains essentially the home Britten and Pears created. Thanks to the foresightedness of a few individuals, who refused to dispose of their belongings but cherished and squirreled them away, almost everything today’s visitor sees once belonged to Britten and Pears. Interiors from this period are increasingly rare and The Red House interiors and collections grow in significance as the years pass.
The presentation of The Red House interiors is based on documentary and photographic evidence as well as the memories of Britten and Pears’ family, friends, colleagues and employees. The house is arranged much as it was in the 1970s.
At The Red House, the ‘Library’ is both an evocative, early ’60s space that doubled up as a music room, and also a collection of 10,000 books and scores that Britten and Pears kept there — and in the main house and also in Britten’s studio.
Both men were avid readers and their wide interests are reflected in the large and varied library collection. It charts their interests and tastes throughout their lives, from the christening Bibles of their infancy to the mystery novels that Pears read in the mid-1980s. There are also older classics by George Eliot, Lewis Carroll and RL Stevenson, and modern ones by Mary Renault, EM Forster and Alan Garner.
Please note that, although the historic Library room is open to all visitors, the books in it — from Britten and Pears’ original collection — may not be moved from the shelves without prior agreement. The same applies to the books still kept in the House and Studio.
The collection includes:
- Britten’s working texts
- Original collection
- Printed music
- Rare books
The Origins of the Library Trust and the Opening of the Library
In 1973 Britten and Pears established a Trust to ensure that their Library collection remained of use to readers after their deaths. The Britten-Pears Library Trust was initially formed by Britten and Pears’ solicitor Isador Caplan, their accountant Leslie Periton, Britten’s publisher Donald Mitchell with assistance from Imogen Holst and Rosamund Strode. Mrs Marion Thorpe later joined the board of Trustees. A small number of researchers (a total of nine in that first year) registered to examine archival material such as manuscripts and libretto drafts from the Archive.
After Britten’s death a number of his manuscripts were sold to H.M. Treasury in satisfaction of Capital Transfer Tax. These items were given to the British Library, but the Trustees negotiated for this material to be kept on permanent loan in Aldeburgh. That agreement still remains in place, with the proviso that one manuscript at a time from the British Library-owned collection remains in London. All of Britten’s manuscripts were originally housed in a purpose-built vault (sometimes referred to by Pears as ‘the Holy of Holies’) which was installed in one of the outbuildings near the Library in 1979.
The Britten-Pears Library was officially opened by Sir Peter Pears on 16 May 1980. He emphasised in his opening address that its purpose was to house what he termed the ‘rarer more precious things’ from his and Britten’s collections ‘which students come to use for study’. A Reading Room, designed by Peter Collymore, was built adjacent to the vault, but with the steady increase in the number of readers in the ensuing years a larger and more up-to-date facility was eventually required. The new Reading Room in the Britten-Pears Archive opened to researchers who wish to study material from the Archive and from Britten and Pears’ original Library collection in 2013.
The Archive holds thousands of photographs and negatives covering many aspects of the lives of Britten, Pears and their friends and colleagues. Our core collection, originally belonging to Britten and Pears, ranges from numerous professional portraits and photographs of them performing, through to their holiday snaps and pictures of informal gatherings with friends.
Our related collections include the English Opera Group archive – production photographs of the premieres of many of Britten’s operas, as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ images of the company in rehearsal, and of the musicians and sets. Similarly, the Aldeburgh Festival photographs provide a fascinating record of life at the Festival through the years, both on and off stage.
The collections include work by photographers Nigel Luckhurst, Enid Slater, Cecil Beaton, George Rodger, Maria Austria, Lotte Meitner-Graf, Angus McBean, Kurt Hutton, Roger Wood, Hans Wild, Erich Auerbach, Clive Strutt, Brian Seed, Walter Rawlings, Edward Morgan, Houston Rogers, Victor Parker, Zoe Dominic, and many others.