Schoolboy Britten's music brought to life

Angi Kennedy They went with him wherever he lived; the treasured notes written by a young boy with an absolute drive to create music. And when he looked back at those early pieces, Benjamin Britten would take delight in his earnest childhood works.

Angi Kennedy

They went with him wherever he lived; the treasured notes written by a young boy with an absolute drive to create music.

And when he looked back at those early pieces, Benjamin Britten would take delight in his earnest childhood works.

From the age of six, when he wrote what is thought to have been his first song - Did You No (sic) My Daddy Has Gone To London Today? for two voices and piano accompaniment - until he had his first opus published at 18, Britten composed an amazing 800 or so pieces.

Those juvenile works, some with a childish signature, others studiously written in his first attempts with a fountain pen, stayed with Britten throughout his life and many house moves.

“He said that he only kept them because they showed the workings of a child's mind,” explained Lucy Walker, who has the immense task of researching his works for the Britten Thematic Catalogue (BTC). “But I would have to say that they show the workings of Britten's young mind - I rather doubt there are many children who would have thought like this!

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“As I have spent more time cataloguing his juvenile works it has been with a growing sense of incredible admiration at his industry and the breadth of creativity.”

His diaries show that Britten wrote music in every spare moment of his young life. Between waking and breakfasting, he would compose; in breaks between lessons too. He was compelled to set down everything from a few scribbled bars that might prove useful in the future to complicated works for a full orchestra.

Now this extraordinary childhood creativity is being revealed to the world with a concert in Norwich next month that will premiere three of Britten's juvenile works.

The concert is to be staged at the John Innes Centre in Norwich on April 4 as the culmination of a Britten Study Day.

It is the result of a partnership between the University of East Anglia, the Britten-Pears Foundation and Chamber Orchestra Anglia (CoA).

The university and the foundation are collaborating in the production of a web-based thematic catalogue of all Britten's works, scheduled to be launched in 2013 to celebrate the composer's centenary.

The research by Lucy Walker and the BTC team has revealed the full extent of his youthful productivity. These hundreds of childhood compositions have been held for many years in the archives of the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh, where the composer and his personal and creative partner, the English tenor Peter Pears, lived for many years until their deaths. But until now many of the pieces have never been played in public.

Sharon Choa, director of the BTC project and founder and conductor of the CoA, said she felt a great responsibility in presenting the works to the public for the first time.

“It is something that is special for East Anglia - it is of the region and for the region,” she said.

“These are absolutely accomplished pieces. I think the idea of dream and fantasy that can be seen in his mature works is evident in these early pieces too and these are only 0.5pc of what there is. Benjamin Britten had so much talent. He couldn't stop composing from a young age. He was a very mature child.”

She believed that the fact that Britten kept these works, no matter how early and how brief, showed that he cherished them. They never left his possession throughout his life.

“If he hadn't thought them important he would have thrown them away, but he kept them safe all that while. He returned to the works and reworked them. I think he recognised that the young Britten had moments of brilliance.

“He was a very special composer, unlike any other, and I think he was so talented,” she added. “The music was like breathing to him, so that in a sense it was quite difficult to get into his mind unless you had the same level of talent. But I think that once you hit it right and realised the essence of it all, everything became clear. It was always something deeply emotional.”

Sharon will be conducting several Britten works at the concert, including Poème 4 and Poème 5, written in early 1927 when he was just 13, as well as the Simple Symphony (1934), large sections of which were adapted from several of Britten's early works. Tenor Justin Lavender, who studied with Pears at the start of his career, is the soloist in the Nocture (1958) which will also be played at the concert.

A string quartet in G completes the programme. This was also written in 1927. Sharon commented: “The string quartet is a difficult genre to write, but he deals with it brilliantly. It is beautifully crafted and demonstrates very sophisticated writing . . . it shows how seriously he was starting to take composition.”

This was a commission for his viola teacher, Audrey Alston, who had the Norwich String Quartet. She introduced him to the composer Frank Bridge who became his composition teacher for nearly two years.

But astonishingly for someone so committed to music at such an early age, Britten's childhood was as varied as it was full. The boy who was born at 21 Kirkley Cliff Road, in Lowestoft, on November 22, 1913 - the feast day of St Cecilia, patron saint of music - was also a talented sportsman and was Victor Ludorum and captain of cricket at his nearby South Lodge preparatory school.

Lucy Walker commented: “1925 was his busiest year, and from the amount of output you would think that he did nothing but composing. Yet he was playing sport, he was head boy at his prep school and having a busy family life, which makes it even odder. There is an incredible drive to compose.

“We have made attempts to date the pieces, sometimes based on the handwriting. From 1922 he had very bulbous notes and quite wiggly stems to the notes, but by the age of 12 it started to become far neater, and in ink from what must have been his first fountain pen. And when he started to have composition lessons with Frank Bridge it becomes so much more fluid.”

The BTC project, which has funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, hopes to eventually include extracts from each work so that visitors to its website will be able to hear Britten's compositional development over the years.

Although other catalogues of his work exist, the BTC approach is quite different, looking at themes that reoccur in his work, and with such a wealth of riches - 98pc of Britten's manuscript material is retained at Aldeburgh - the five-strong project team is still working through the juvenile works with the mature works yet to follow.

Britten's love of East Anglia remained with him all his life. While becoming an international figure in the world of music, he was also treasured by the region. Britten and Pears set up the Aldeburgh Festival 60 years ago, and the composer advised on the setting up of the UEA's School of Music 20 years later. His influence is still felt there and he was one of the university's first honorary graduates.

And so it is apt that the UEA should be involved in this new work. The BTC project has strengthened links between the UEA and the Britten-Pears Foundation, and the concert sits well with the ethos of the CoA.

Although the concert still needs £7,000 worth of funding to cover its costs, Sharon Choa is determined that it will go on because of its importance to the region and she is seeking financial support from local businesses.

The CoA, formed in 2001 to bring classical music to a broad audience, is the orchestra in residence at the UEA where Sharon is a music lecturer and director of performance studies.

The orchestra's role at the university is to translate research into live performance, as with the Britten juvenilia, and to explore links with other disciplines, such as medicine, genetics and mathematics as well as other art forms.

It also fosters young new talent and is currently hoping to set up, in conjunction with UEA, an academy for gifted and talented young musicians.

This would build on workshops for young players aged between 11 and 25 that the CoA has already held with Sir Colin Davis and other major conductors, and would give gifted and talented young musicians the opportunity to work on a regular basis with leading professional players without having to leave Norfolk.

“I feel particularly for young people that you cannot just present them with something good,” she said. “Good is not enough. It has to be extraordinary. It has to be excellent, because that is what young people instinctively sense and absorb and respond to, even if they cannot verbalise it.”

Sharon hopes the Britten study day and concert will also act as an inspiration to young people in the region. “We particularly want youngsters who are aspiring to be composers to hear what he produced at that age,” she said, adding that a composition workshop was also being held as part of the event.

It seems fitting that young people should be so included. There have been many attempts to analyse the effects his unusual early years on the rest of his life, but what is certain is that Britten maintained a lifelong love of childhood and young people.

He wrote music for and about children, befriended young people and encouraged them in music. Among the “Britten boys” was Stephen Terry, a graduate of the University of East Anglia. Now involved in international development work at Sheffield Hallam University and still singing with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Stephen has fond memories of his time spent with Britten.

He explained: “In the late Fifties Britten was writing music for children's voices and usually had to use cathedral choirs or Anglican church choirs, which had a certain sound. But he wanted something more earthy and less refined, and so the London Boy Singers was set up, with Britten's amanuensis Rosamond Stroud recruiting boys from around north London to get that different quality of sound.

“I was living in north London in Finchley at the time and had done bits of singing and was recruited to the London Boy Singers. One of the first concerts we did was at Aldeburgh Festival in 1960 or '61, in which I had a small solo in one of his pieces, Missa brevis.”

That led to an audition at Britten and Pears' flat in St John Wood for the 1964 Decca recording of the composer's opera Albert Herring.

“He was lovely to work with, very patient but very demanding. He knew what he wanted in the music and he would go on and on until he got it,” said Stephen. “He had this great love of childhood innocence and enjoyed boys' company. Throughout my whole relationship with him, he was just an avuncular figure”.

The part of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream followed when Stephen was aged 13. “I would go and stay at the Red House in Aldeburgh. There was a housekeeper who looked after me while Britten would compose all morning - he had a very strict routine. At lunchtime we would go for a walk by the sea with the dog and talk.

“I don't think I understood the total context of Britten in the history of music, but I certainly felt it was a real privilege to be staying there.”

In later years when Mr Terry was studying at the UEA, he would see Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival. “The next thing I knew was a phone call from Rosamond saying he had died and asking would I sing at his funeral.”

But what would the great man have thought of having his childhood works played to a modern-day audience? Rosamond Stroud, who still lives in Aldeburgh, believes Britten would have been open to the idea.

“I think he would have thought that if they wanted to play them then they should go ahead. He didn't need to hear them because he knew what they sounded like already,” she said.

She worked closely with Britten from the mid-Sixties until his death in 1976 and remembered seeing some of his childhood works.

“You would find some rather charming remarks on the pages of his childhood works and he used to sign every page, because I think he had seen his father sign things and thought that was the thing to do.

“He was enormously tickled by this child's works. He did publish Four Walztes that he had written when he was young, and he kept the 't' in the title because that was what he had put as a boy.”

t The concert of juvenile and mature work by Benjamin Britten takes place at the John Innes Centre in Norwich on Friday April 4 at 7.15pm. Tickets are £10 and can be bought on the door or through the website: