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Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of BENJAMIN BRITTEN 1913–1976. Volume Five: 1958–1965, ed. by Philip REED and Mervyn COOKE. The Boydell Press 2010. l, 764 pp., illustrations.

Experience Classicsonline

The edition of Britten letters has gained speed since the first two volumes were published in 1991. This has been a definite positive trend since the series was taken over by Boydell after volume 3. Philip Reed has been involved from the very beginning, and even after nearly twenty years the editorial principles and outlook of the books have been retained.
This generously-illustrated, sumptuously annotated edition gives deep insights into Britten’s life and milieu, and in this volume we witness Britten encouraging young and aspiring composers (Maxwell Davies, Bennett, Maw, Birtwistle, Williamson). Britten has now reached the peak of his career, with the composition of the two cantatas, the Cello Sonata, Noye’s Fludde, Nocturne, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to forget, to wide international acclaim, the War Requiem.
We realize that Britten and Pears once dined with no less than Luigi Nono and his wife in Venice. But we wonder, in Britten’s letter to Nono of 1 October 1962, what one sentence means: “Thank you very much for your note, & for the money.” A typical case where one would long for a commentary. There are more such instances in the entire series. Why, for example, are so many contemporaneous English composers entirely omitted. It is interesting to see which musicians hardly ever featured in the present five volumes – e.g. Alan Bush, Edmund Rubbra, or Herbert Howells (although Bush wrote a song cycle for Pears in 1953).
In fact we experience Britten’s cosmos, but are otherwise offered only a partial glimpse of the actual British musical scene. This might be something a German editor would more clearly comment upon, but would it be relevant to an edition of Britten letters? I think it would, since Britten, as an outstanding figure in the British musical life in the Twentieth century - we experience him deeply involved in organising performances and performing himself – had very particular views about others and influenced generations both of listeners and musicians.
Sympathetic as the edition may be towards Britten minor behavioural flaws from the composer’s side are not neglected such as his tirade against Lord Harewood after the break-up of his marriage (p. 631). I am still unclear as to one thing about which I have always wondered when reading the previous four volumes. There are more Britten letters than those included in this publication. We are not told what the criteria were for inclusion or exclusion. One wonders what letters have been omitted and why. These thoughts are prompted for example by Britten’s letter to E.M. Forster, 21 April 1962, p. 393.
No information is given as to the location of the various letters whether in the Britten-Pears Library or elsewhere. This means a checking of sources would require more enquiries.
In total however, we have a most inspiring and inspired publication, with plenty of new insights into Britten and his world. This edition of the letters together with the multitude of other important Britten publications over the past few years gives us a much more substantial basis for future Britten research, and for the understanding of Britten and his music.
Jürgen Schaarwächter
A most inspiring and inspired publication.






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