The Fourth ‘B’ and his muse at the Red House, Aldeburgh

The Drawing Room of the Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Portrait of Benjamin Britten by Henry Lamb (1883-1960). Oil. 1945

Much has been written about the negative effects of overly ambitious, pushy mothers in recent times, but sometimes their obsessive drive has been to the benefit of the wider world.

Bust of Benjamin Britten. Georg Erhlich (1897-1966) Bronze. 1951

This is certainly the case for Edith Britten a keen mezzo-soprano who sang with, and was secretary of, the Lowestoft Musical Society during the first decades of the 20th century. Edith made early claims that her son, Benjie, born in 1913, would become the fourth ‘B’ after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Benjamin Britten. Kenneth Green (1905-1986). Charcoal. 1944

It is just over six years since I had the privilege of attending the centenary celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s birth with the ‘Grimes on the Beach‘ performance of Britten’s first opera ‘Peter Grimes’. However, it was way back on 7th June 1945 that the premiere was given at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, singing the title role.

Royal Crown Derby hand painted plate in fine bone china commissioned by the Aldeburgh Festival to celebrate the 60th birthday of the composer Benjamin Britten in 1973. Artwork by ceramic designer June Branscombe. Originally, 500 complete sets comprising two bowls and twelve plates were planned however only 129 sets were completed. The cost for the full set in 1973 was £350.00. 

Naturally Britten’s first opera was set in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, his home county, and, for its first production Britten suggested a local artist, Kenneth Green, for the set design.

Aldeburgh today no longer a working, fishing town on the East Coast of Suffolk.

Green provided realistic visualisations of Aldeburgh as a working fishing town as it was then and not the quaint seaside holiday town that we see today.

Scene design for the Boat (Interior), Act I, scene 2, ‘Peter Grimes’ at Sadler’s Wells, London. Kenneth Green. Ink and watercolour on paper. 1945

The lead character of the opera is Peter Grimes. It is a part for a tenor and Britten wrote it specifically for Pears, who was reported to have been strongly influential on the interpretation of the roll. For him that interpretation was life as an outsider.

Portrait of Peter Pears. Diana Cumming (b. 1929) Oil on board. 1961

Soon after the the premiere, the critic William Glock (Music critic for The Observer in June 1945) wrote “During the last fortnight, I have heard and read several comments on Peter Grimes . . . which describe it as a fierce and challenging work.” And, another critic, Scott Goddard commented, “Peter Grimes is no child’s play. The tale is fierce, its development tragic, and the music fascinating”.

Portrait of Peter Pears. Philip Sutton (b. 1928) Oil on canvas. 1955

Despite being ‘challenging’ for the 1940s audiences the opera was successful and at the time Britten wrote to his friend, Imogen Holst,

I think the occasion is actually a greater one than either Sadler’s Wells or me, I feel. Perhaps it is an omen for English opera in the future.

Benjamin Britten, Summer 1945
Portrait of Benjamin Britten with Clytie. Mary Potter (1900-1981). Wax medium on canvas. 1959

The success of ‘Peter Grimes’ at Sadler’s Wells and its subsequent addition to the canon, firmly placed Britten as an opera composer and, although I am not sure everybody agrees with his mother about Britten being the fourth ‘B’, his oeuvre without doubt places him alongside Purcell whom he so greatly admired.

Buried side by side in the graveyard of St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Aldeburgh.

The Red House, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh is open to the public and well worth a visit.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

5 thoughts on “The Fourth ‘B’ and his muse at the Red House, Aldeburgh”

    1. Visiting is a bit hit and miss. We arrived just as the last group was allowed upstairs and so missed those rooms. The volunteers are perfectly pleasant, but quite strict! Personally, I think it’s worth booking a guided tour, but as my father is so deaf now we don’t do ‘speaking’ events anymore.

  1. Absolutely fascinating, I love Britten’s music and directed several of his works with the children to whom I taught music. Thank you so much for the research and the images you used.

    1. All the paintings and sculptures are on display at the Red House and visitors are allowed to take photos which was great. When we went a lady in the neighbouring Britten-Pears Foundation archive building showed us notebooks, recipe books and domestic accounts of how Britten and Pears had lived their lives in Aldeburgh. I had no idea that Imogen Holst had been a significant friend of theirs and she nows lies buried in the plot behind them.

      It must have been a joy for you to teach Britten’s work as he was such an advocate for children making music. Pears was a teacher later in life and I read that he was teaching a masterclass at Snape Maltings the day before he died. There’s been a bit of fuss locally as the people running the business of the Maltings want to change the name from ‘The Britten-Pears Foundation’ to ‘The Benjamin Britten Foundation’. My father, sister and I are amongst many others who think it’s wrong to remove Pears from the name as it was both Britten and Pears together that made the Aldeburgh Festival and Snape Maltings world-class. There was a petition to stop the dropping of Pears, but to date I haven’t been able to find out if the ‘suits’ have pushed through the change or not.

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