Blog: Britten at Wigmore

Musician, researcher and presenter Katy Hamilton delves into the rich and significant history of the partnership between Benjamin Britten and Wigmore Hall.

On 19 March 1931, the 17-year-old Benjamin Britten recorded in his diary: Quite good lesson with [John] Ireland in Chelsea at 10.0. Practise afternoon. Tea with Barbara & Mummy at Selfridges at 4.45. Go with Mummy (with tickets from Mrs. Brosa via Mrs. Bridge) to topping recital by Antonio Brosa. This was one of Britten’s earliest trips to Wigmore Hall, which he visited on numerous occasions whilst studying at the Royal College of Music between 1930 and 1933. Yet it was not until the 1940s, and the composer’s return from his years in America with Peter Pears, that he was to appear on the stage himself.

In 1941, Boosey & Hawkes decided to organise a series of concerts at the Hall. Whilst Myra Hess had been overseeing chamber music at the National Gallery since the outbreak of the Second World War, the vast majority of the repertoire performed there was Classical or Romantic. Leslie Boosey described the new Wigmore series as ‘like manna in the wilderness to the people who are really interested in modern music as there is nothing else of the kind available to them.’ It was in this series, on 23 September 1942, that Britten made his Wigmore debut. He accompanied Pears in the première of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. Boosey wrote to Arthur Benjamin, ‘These had the
most tremendous reception and I was not surprised. When I heard them originally... I expressed the opinion that they were the most outstanding songs that had been written in the last 25 years... the critics went further than that. One described them as the finest songs that had been written in this country since the 17th century.’

Britten’s star was rising, and the next few years saw performances of A Ceremony of Carols, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Les Illuminations, several pieces for two pianos performed with Clifford Curzon, the Phantasy Quartet (written in 1932) and four French folksongs. His greatest achievements, however, date from 1945. On 31 May that year, the Hall hosted a ‘Concert Introduction to Peter Grimes’ in which the producer Tyrone Guthrie explained the plot, and brief excerpts were performed by the cast. Britten presided at the piano; and Vaughan Williams, seated in the auditorium, became so excited that he kicked his hat under the seat in front and couldn’t find it at the end of the evening! When the opera was premièred at Sadler’s Wells on 7 June 1945, it received rave reviews, with Britten hailed as one of the greatest British opera composers for centuries. That November, he was much involved with the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death. His Second String Quartet, inspired by Purcell’s music (and ending with a Chacony) was premièred on 21 November by the Zorian String Quartet, led by Olive Zorian; and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne were given their first performance the following day. Britten also accompanied Pears and soprano Margaret Ritchie in Purcell songs, making realisations of both these and a Trio Sonata in which he performed. The dates of these performances seemed to have a special significance: Purcell had died on 21 November 1695; Britten had been born on 22 November 1913. Given the 32-year-old’s place in British music by this time, this seemed a justly poetic passing of the musical baton across the centuries.

Britten was not just involved in performing his own compositions and arrangements. His most regular collaborator was of course Peter Pears, with whom he performed Lieder by Schubert (including both Die schöne Müllerin in 1944 and Winterreise in 1964), Berg, Mahler and Schumann. They gave Boyhood’s End and The Heart’s Assurance by Michael Tippett, a close friend whom Britten and Pears supported enthusiastically, and other British songs by Dowland, Campion, Ernest Moeran, and Britten’s beloved teacher and mentor, Frank Bridge. Some of Britten’s earliest appearances at the Hall were in music by French colleagues Louis Durey and Francis Poulenc. He also gave a joint concert
with Poulenc in December 1945, in which Pierre Bernac performed.

In 1954, another opera was introduced to the British concert-going public via a Wigmore evening. This was The Turn of the Screw, which had received its world première in Venice’s Teatro La Fenice just a few weeks before. But the following year saw a far more tragic undertaking: a memorial concert for Noel Mewton-Wood, an Australian pianist who had been particularly highly regarded for his performances of 20th-century music (including Britten’s Piano Concerto), and had worked on several occasions as an accompanist for Pears. Mewton-Wood took his own life in 1953. John Amis (husband of Olive Zorian) organised a memorial concert in 1955, which included the première of
Britten’s Third Canticle, ‘Still Falls the Rain’, to the poetry of Edith Sitwell. Britten gave the manuscript of the piece to Mewton-Wood’s mother Dulcie in remembrance.

Programmed by John Gilhooly, Wigmore Hall’s 2019/20 Season celebrates this rich legacy of performances and premières given by Britten (and in many cases, Pears too) at the Hall, with concerts by Allan Clayton, Louise Alder, Sophie Bevan, Aurora Orchestra and the Doric String Quartet, whose violist Hélène Clément is currently using Britten’s own instrument – a gift from Frank Bridge on his brilliant student’s departure for America in 1937.

Britten and Pears continued to make appearances at the Hall through the 1960s in joint recitals, the last in 1967 in a programme of works appropriately enough by Purcell, Schubert and Britten himself. In 1972, Britten underwent a heart operation which led to a slight stroke – and this affected his right hand mobility, resulting in an end to his concert career. Yet Pears’ subsequent performances up to the early 1980s with Julian Bream, Osian Ellis and Murray Perahia do not mark the end of the Britten legacy. In the early 1970s, Britten had completed the song cycle Who are these Children? and 12 songs were premièred at Snape Maltings in 1971 – but the composer left three more unperformed. These were given their London première at Wigmore Hall on 22 November 1983 – which would have been Britten’s 70th birthday – by Neil Mackie and Iain Burnside. This all-Britten programme included recitations of Sitwell poems by Peter Pears and concluded with the composer’s Third String Quartet, Britten’s last work. David Matthews wrote touchingly of playing the Quartet through with his brother Colin as a piano duet in late 1975: ‘After we had finished there was a silence and then Ben said, in a small voice: Do you think it’s any good? We assured him that it was.’

This article was originally published in The Score magazine in Summer 2019. The magazine is curated exclusively for Friends of Wigmore Hall and is published 3 times a year. To find out more about Friends of Wigmore Hall please visit here