Celebrating Benjamin Britten's birthday weekend

Martin CullingfordSun 24th November 2013

From Snape to Lowestoft, his music for young people takes deserved centre stage

An old Victorian maltings, surrounded by reed beds beneath the foreboding Suffolk sky - and yet it feels absolutely in the centre of things, at least for a weekend. Never quite at home in the metropolitan music world, Britten left it and settled in Suffolk. Well, in honour of his centenary, it seems the metropolitan music world has followed in his path. And not just from London either, as the international media here attest. All have travelled to this East Anglian corner where Benjamin Britten founded a concert hall, grew a festival, and created a spirit that seems to both transcend the remote region, but also to be indelibly a part of it. For where else, as the maltings lights twinkle in the cold misty evening gloom, could Britten's distinctive voice feel so evocatively at home?

I grew up just along the coast, in Lowestoft, Britten's place of birth. And while I won't pretend its leading son loomed large in the town's perception of itself, his name was there, in a school, even a shopping centre. But more importantly, down the coast, at Snape, was his concert hall, a beacon for those involved in local junior music-making. A school's performance event sometime in the early '90s marks the first and only time I'll ever play in a world-famous concert hall. But here I was again, sitting in Snape's main auditorium as it played host to hundreds of school children. Friday Afternoons was initially meant to be a local project, in which Suffolk schools would collectively sing the songs Britten wrote for the Welsh school where his brother was headmaster. Instead, it became truly international, with 100,000 children around the world, beginning in Melbourne at 4am GMT, and finishing 18 hours later, all joining in together and sharing their experiences online.

At noon - just about Friday afternoon - I took my seat in Snape's concert hall to witness the project's focal point. (Having been assured it's ok to take in my 11 month old I chose a discreet-looking area near the back with a few empty seats around it in case she 'joined in' at the wrong points. No sooner did I sit down than Aldeburgh Music chief executive Jonathan Reekie took the seat next to me. I then noticed Britten's nephews sitting right in front. Baby, thankfully, behaved.) The event was immense fun, the banked rows of school children joining in equally as enthusiastically with the folksy nursery-rhyme melancholy of Old Abram Brown, or a jazzy, multi-layered riff on B-R-I-T-T-E-N, all brilliantly led by Pete Letanka. The impressive winning entries of the Britten Young Songwriter Competition, by two 13 year old girls, were performed. They set two texts by Anthony Horowitz who took as his inspiration the locality: the shingle, the cold grey sea, Orford Lighthouse. And this feels just right. For the music of Britten and this coastline are indivisibly linked, no more so than in the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, performed as part of the evening's Centenary Concert. As the orchestra stood to receive their applause, conductor Oliver Knussen leant over and tapped the score: Britten's music, the greatest honouree of the evening.

And so, up the coast to Lowestoft where, on St Cecilia's Day in 1913, Britten was born. His birthplace is this weekend open as a pop-up museum. A dental surgery at the time (and, many decades later, still a dental surgery, and one I attended), it's now a guest house, where you can stay in the room where Britten was born, or in his childhood bedroom, waking to his views out across the North Sea. The fishing fleet is no more, but otherwise the sight would be familiar to Britten. Some of the scores he wrote in the house have been returned to it for this weekend: childhood works, but charming for all that. There's even Britten's old rocking horse, used in the first productions of The Little Sweep, and on which, if you're as small as my daughter, you can even ride. Apparently the young Brittens would ride it so violently it would journey across the room. The smartly furnished guest house has the genteel air of the Edwardian home it would once have been, where the family held musical evenings, lived with domestic staff, and could eat kippers only at the weekend so as not to stink out the surgery.

The church the Brittens worshipped in has been demolished, but north of the town, grand medieval St Margaret's is hosting Noye's Fludde, as indeed it did back in 1959. Today's delightfully flamboyant set and colourful costumes may have been make-believe, but the perils of the sea we sing of in the congregational hymns that form part of the work were once very real to a town whose beach village had been wrecked in the 1953 floods, and whose sailors lost to the waves are remembered in a large maritime memorial on the north side of the nave. The words for the biblical drama come from a 15th century Chester Miracle Play, designed, as with Britten's piece, to be performed by ordinary people. Ordinary people, that is, in the sense of being skilled amateurs and living locally: but what an extraordinary achievement this production, conducted by Paul Kildea, was. Britten's great gift was to write music for children that felt contemporary and challenging, but in which they can excel: to enhance their skills, and so enhance them as people. Seeing children from the local area sing and play (and when the orchestra took their bow I was staggered just how young some of them were) was incredibly moving. Of all that this impressive Centenary weekend offered, Britten may well have taken most pride in this and events such as Friday Afternoons, assured that his legacy lies not just in the libraries of scores owned by international ensembles, ready to be pulled down and performed by professionals, but here, among young musicians, to inspire them, and so to inspire us all. Happy birthday, Benjamin Britten.

For details of the final day of the Centenary weekend, visit the Aldeburgh website:

BBC Radio 3 has been resident at Aldeburgh Music for the weekend: see its website for details of broadcasts live and on catch-up. 

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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