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The voice, formal but friendly, has a baritonal timbre, with a plummy accent in the well-bred English tradition. The speaker is explaining his working methods to a group of schoolchildren: “A wonderful view can be a distraction. You see, here, a blackbird is making her nest outside my window …”
Looking out of the window of Benjamin Britten’s composing studio at the Red House, Aldeburgh, where he lived from 1958 until his death in 1976, his disembodied voice makes you feel he is at your side, rather than on a 50-year-old recording that plays at the touch of a button. That short clip is both spooky and highly evocative. You can’t help feeling awestruck by the lingering sense of his presence.
The sensation is stronger than at any other great composer’s house I have visited. It could be because Britten died recently enough to have been captured regularly on tape and film. But the crucial factor is that Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, made arrangements for their Suffolk home to become a “living” space for the perpetuation of their legacy.
Soon after moving to The Red House, set in secluded grounds away from Aldeburgh’s seafront, Britten created his studio in the attic of an outbuilding, referring to it as a room where he could “bang away to my heart’s content”. War Requiem, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many other works were composed here. The piano, the desk, the backless wooden chair, the ornaments, the pictures – all are exactly as he had them. You can tell as much from a photo on display, taken shortly after he moved in, showing him at work.
The studio’s re-creation is just one part of a £4.7m programme undertaken by the Britten-Pears Foundation, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to mark the centenary of the composer’s birth on November 22. A substantial enlargement of exhibition space gives visitors insight into Britten’s life, work, beliefs and musical mission, from childhood to the grave. Here is everything from his christening gown to the passionate 1974 love letter from the ailing composer to Pears, even a home movie of Britten in his swimming pool. The pair were inveterate hoarders: from the 1930s they kept theatre tickets, picture postcards, receipts, restaurant bills – even an insurance inventory, which has made possible a restoration of the house’s 1960s decorative scheme.
There are sections devoted to Britten’s childhood, his pacifism, homosexuality, international travels and collaborations with visual artists. One is titled “Where does inspiration come from?”, providing insights into the gestation of Peter Grimes.
The biggest centenary project at The Red House has been the creation of the Britten Archive, in a carefully contextualised building designed by London architects Stanton Williams, whose low profile and red-brick façade complement the Grade II-listed house across the lawn. It is now home to the most comprehensive collection of any composer in the world, where scholars will be able to research every aspect of Britten’s world, from manuscript scores to his 100,000-plus letters. For each of Britten’s works, researchers will be able to trace its development from sketch to performance history – not just from the composer’s perspective, but also that of collaborators such as the librettist Eric Crozier and the soprano Joan Cross, whose papers were donated to the archive.
Like any collection, there are strengths and weaknesses. Some of the best manuscript scores were gifted to the British Library in lieu of inheritance tax (the archive holds digital versions). Valuable storage space is devoted to materials that seem of marginal interest – pocket scores from Britten’s childhood and books that stimulated his creativity, such as the volume of Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words given to him by Christopher Isherwood in 1949.
Britten was lucky to have two assistants, Imogen Holst and Rosamund Strode, who realised the importance of collecting material and retrieving things that had fallen into other hands. Most of his legacy was catalogued before the new building was mooted but, until recently, little of it had been stored in environmentally friendly conditions.
“The collection is near capacity now but you can never tell what might come in – things keep turning up,” says Richard Jarman, general director of the Britten-Pears Foundation, which acts as caretaker of their legacy. “We’re aware of one or two missing things that we hope will come our way [when their present owners die and estates are split up]. But even in The Red House we’ve just discovered another 15 works in a drawer – Britten juvenilia that we hope will be finalised for publication next year.”
Beyond conserving Britten’s material legacy, Jarman explains, the foundation seeks to raise the composer’s profile worldwide and further his musical ideals. “The more we promote Britten, the more income we generate [in performance royalties] and the more we can give away.”
In a good year the Foundation earns up to £1.5m – enough to cover running costs, website development, new music commissions and educational grants, as well as a £500,000 subsidy to Aldeburgh Music. Plans are also being laid for an endowment that will replace the royalty stream when copyright on Britten’s works ends in 2046.
Thanks to publicity surrounding the centenary, the number of “Britten pilgrims” heading for Suffolk is expected to increase but, as Jarman says, “we’re not trying to turn it into a Britten Disneyland.”
Quite so. Publicists may refer to Britten’s home as a “heritage site” but the new exhibition, education and archive facilities have not dented its atmosphere of peace and seclusion. What surely will increase is an understanding of Britten’s genius, so that his voice can continue resonating long into the future.