Benjamin Britten Country, SuffolkBorn in Lowestoft on the Suffolk coast, Benjamin Britten retained a love for the county and for the sea. His sexuality and his creativity marked him as an outsider in the conservative society of mid-twentieth century Britain, and in what he regarded as a complacent musical scene in London . This strong ‘outsider ‘ element of his character led Britten to move his life and his work to a place that itself has a feeling of being at the outer edge of things, Aldeburgh, buying The Old Mill at nearby Snape in 1937.
Though it is undoubtedly beautiful, Aldeburgh can show a more desolate and wild face, the east wind blowing across the shingle beach seeming to come straight from Siberia. As a town with a maritime history – Drake’s ship The Pelican was built in the town, and partly crewed by men from there - where fishing still continues to this day, Aldeburgh informs the work of Britten, especially pieces like Peter Grimes, written by the poet George Crabbe who came from the place.
Britten and his partner Peter Pears established the Aldeburgh Festival as a way of separating themselves, freeing themselves perhaps, from the influence of the London music scene about which Britten could be contemptuous. In June 1948 the first festival featured the premiere of his cantata Saint Nicolas, and of Albert Herring, itself set in East Suffolk.
Pears and Britten lived in The Red House in Aldeburgh from 1957 onwards, Pears remaining there after Britten’s death in 1976 until his own passing a decade later. They are buried in the graveyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church in the town, their simple headstones standing side-by-side illustrating their lifelong partnership and their musical collaboration. The Red House is the centre of the foundation carrying on their artistic and community work, and there are tours of the home at certain times. Close by there is also the Britten-Pears Library.
While other venues were and are used in the festival, the specially adapted (and after the fire of 1969 re-constructed) Snape Maltings is the best known and most important. The mid-19th-century building ended its life as a maltings in 1965, and was converted by Arup Associates into probably the most instantly recognizable concert hall in Britain, opened by the Queen in 1967.
It is characteristic of the festival, and of Britten’s vision for it, that new music is the focus. By pairing pieces exploring similar musical avenues and ideas, the festival tries to make this music more accessible to its audiences without being condescending or puerile.
Britten would have been amused, and possibly annoyed, by the furore surrounding the modern sculpture dedicated to him that has been erected on the beach at Aldeburgh. The Scallop, a 4m high piece made in a local foundry from a small model by the artist by Maggi Hambling, has been vandalised several times, and though a local poll signalled approval by the majority, a minority remains very vocal in their dislike of it. Somewhat ironically the words (from Peter Grimes) around the edge of the metal piece state “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”
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