The Aldeburgh Festival at The Red House


Story: Emma Blowers
Photography: Alice Foreman
Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Red House is the former home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and a space of important cultural and musical heritage. It is a significant historical home documenting the lives of Britten and Pears; an LGBT couple in the 20th century. The Red House is in Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast in England.

I work as the Graduate Trainee in the Britten-Pears Archive, on site at The Red House. As part of my job, I help to catalogue and provide access to Britten and Pears’ papers, as well as the papers of their associates, such as the composer, Gustav Holst, and his daughter Imogen Holst, a conductor, composer and also Britten’s assistant.

The Red House is a museum which has been decorated and maintained to be as it was when Britten and Pears lived there together. You can feel who they were as people, and see the intimate partnership between the men in their personal and professional lives. The Red House offers guided visits of the upstairs rooms of the house. It is a huge house with 8 bedrooms in total and the oldest part of the building dates from the 17th century and is Grade II listed. The guided visit ends in Britten’s bedroom, with views across the gardens to the archive, offering a visual of how the collection lives on.

Britten and Pears created the Britten-Pears Library Trust in 1973, with the help of their solicitor, Isador Caplan. This evolved into the Britten-Pears Foundation following Pears’ death in 1986. The legacy they have left is entirely unique. One of the UK’s most important centres for music research; the archive and library holdings of manuscripts and other source materials are unrivalled in their depth and breadth by any other single composer collection. The archive also holds around 1200 artworks collected by Britten and Pears during their lives, forming a unique fine art collection.

Britten and Pears’ library is a unique space that is still used today for performances. It was purpose-built by them to teach their music students, and as a large space for Britten to store a grand piano which is still played during recitals and performances. The library also houses 5,000 books from Britten and Pears’ own book collection, of which there are many more in situ in The Red House.

Each year in the month of June, The Red House celebrates the Aldeburgh Festival in conjunction with Snape Maltings, a concert hall founded by Britten and Pears in 1967, and opened by Queen Elizabeth II. In the Britten-Pears Archive, two exhibitions were displayed over two weeks, the first being Tippett & Britten, and the second Britten & Song. The second focused on materials that showed Britten’s literary influences for creating his song cycles and the contribution by Pears in inspiring and collaborating with Britten on the works.

The first item in the Britten & Song exhibition is a handwritten book made by Britten for his mother, Edith Rhoda Britten, titled Twelve Songs for the Mezzo-Soprano. This was created as an anthology of some of Britten’s compositions, including ones he started writing in his youth.

Another item featured in the exhibition was Britten’s collection of Thomas Hardy literature, including his copy of Times Laughingstocks. This volume was gifted from Thomas Hardy to Gustav Holst and inherited by Imogen Holst. Imogen Holst gifted the book to Britten and Pears.

One of the most touching items in the exhibition was a letter from Britten to Pears in August 1945, when Britten went on a concert tour in Germany with Yehudi Menuhin, playing to Holocaust survivors. In the letter, Britten describes a post-war Germany. This trip inspired Britten to write The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, the manuscript in the exhibition was notated by Britten, with the words written by Pears.

Britten was known for his pacifism and status as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, as was fellow composer Michael Tippett. This led to their collaboration and was the focus of their relationship in the Tippett & Britten exhibition in the Archive. Britten and Tippett were two of the most important composers of the 20th century, and The Red House offers an insight into Britten’s life and lasting influence.

Visitor Information:

The Red House is open March to October, Tuesday to Sunday, 1-5pm.

Tickets are £8 for adults and free for under 16s.

Britten enjoyed the peace and privacy of The Red House away from the busy seafront and High Street. Walking to The Red House from the Aldeburgh High Street takes around 30 minutes.

If travelling to The Red House on public transport, the nearest train station is Saxmundham. There are buses available to Aldeburgh from Saxmundham and from other Suffolk towns such as Ipswich and Woodbridge.

More information about The Red House can be found on our website: https://brittenpears.org/

Biography:

Emma Blowers has a BA in English and American Literature from the University of Kent and will be starting her MA in Archives and Records Management at University College London in September 2019.

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