Benjamin Britten's musical childhood
Ian CollinsEven if you can't get tickets for this Aldeburgh Festival fortnight, the first resort of music is well worth visiting between now and December for an exhibition on Benjamin Britten's musical childhood in Lowestoft.Ian Collins
Once upon a pre-war time there lived 'quite an ordinary little boy' in Lowestoft. Beni, a dentist's son, loved cricket, took a mean corner at football and adored maths lessons.
Describing his younger self, the adult Benjamin Britten added, 'There was one curious thing about this boy: he wrote music.
'His friends bore with it, his enemies kicked a bit but not for long (he was quite tough), the staff couldn't object if his work and games didn't suffer. He wrote lots of it, reams and reams of it.'
Between the ages of six and 18 - from 1919 to 1932 - he penned 731 surviving pieces which now, thanks to a joint venture by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the University of East Anglia, are viewable online (www.brittenpears.org).
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This is the first part of a pioneering plan for a complete thematic catalogue to be produced by the Aldeburgh-based foundation for the composer's centenary, in 2013.
And until December there's also a fascinating and free Young Britten exhibition in The Red House, the composer's final base and now the home of his awesome archive.
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New research, multimedia displays and hands-on activities reveal how the family residence above the dental surgery at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road was a haven of music, thanks to Mrs Britten, whose passion was passed on to both sons if not to her two daughters.
Her youngest child rewarded her with a composition, at six, called 'Do you no that my Daddy has gone to London today?' which suggested that his music was more promising than his spelling.
And yet, as Britten recalled of his earliest work: 'I'm afraid it was the pattern on the paper which I was interested in and when I asked my mother to play it, her look of horror upset me considerably.'
The gift of a musical dictionary, for the maestro's ninth birthday, improved matters as the torrent of notes poured forth.
South Lodge Preparatory School, a short walk from the family home, did not teach music but Beni was set up for life via private piano lessons with Ethel Castle, Lowestoft's unsung heroine.
At 10, the prodigy was also learning the viola with Norfolk tutor Audrey Alston. In 1927 she introduced him to composer Frank Bridge who agreed to nurture his creative gift.
In some ways this was to be the happiest period of Britten's life and, as he later told Imogen Holst, part of him remained forever 13.
But when arriving as a boarder at Gresham's School in Holt - with space set aside for London lessons with the great composer - he was greeted by a miffed music master with the words: 'So you are the little boy who likes Stravinsky!'
The school reports - glowing from form masters and headmaster, and glowering from the music teacher - tell us almost as much about adults as a talented teenager.
In 1937 Britten, then a star graduate from the Royal College of Music, would repay an enormous debt with his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra.
Two years later, as Britten and partner Peter Pears were leaving for America on the eve of war, Bridge gave his viola to his pupil so that a 'little piece' of him could be part of the adventure.
Now returned by Paul Cassidy of the Brodsky Quartet, the historic instrument is a highlight of the Aldeburgh exhibition.
Young Britten: Schoolboy, Composer is at The Red House in Golf Lane, Aldeburgh (01728 451700). Open 10am-5pm daily during the Aldeburgh Festival (until June 28), 2-5pm Tues-Sat until September 30, then 2-5pm Tues-Fri until December 11.