On 15 May, OBERTO staff were delighted to welcome to Oxford Brookes Dr Christopher Hilton, archivist at the Britten-Pears Foundation, to give a talk to students, staff and members of the public. The Britten-Pears archive is housed at the Red House in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, which was shared by Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Pears continuing to live there for a further decade between Britten’s death and his own. Today the house welcomes visitors including school children, members of the public, professional musicians, and researchers.
Dr Hilton gave a lively account of Britten’s life, with amusing anecdotes about an alcoholic organ-playing uncle in Ipswich and a father who hated music so much that he refused to have a gramophone in the family home. We also learnt about Britten’s travels (including a period living in a squalid house in Brooklyn, with a stripper down the corridor) and above all about the practical challenges of managing a clandestine relationship in the days before the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Britten and Pears were inveterate hoarders, with the result that their home – which even today remains much as they left it – is a treasure trove for musicologists and social historians alike. Dr Hilton gave a fascinating account of the varied range of items to be found in the archive, including correspondence with librettists, costume and set designs, and notes on abandoned projects (oh that the operas based on A Christmas Carol and Mansfield Park might have come to fruition!). But not all of the items relate specifically to music: there are, for instance, letters from famous figures (Tony Benn, Vanessa Redgrave) who sought to co-opt Britten to their political causes. And most intriguing of all, perhaps, are the ephemera of daily life that provide a vivid insight into life in post-War England: receipts itemising Rice Krispies, Special K and copious bottles of booze; receipts from hotels where the couple booked two rooms; receipts from hotels where they booked just one. The archive’s musical riches are many but it is also, quite apart from anything else, a fantastic resource on the history of shopping.
Further information on the Britten-Pears Foundation and how to visit the Red House may be found here: https://brittenpears.org/visit/
A report on an OBERTO conference in 2017 on operatic objects may be found here: https://obertobrookes.com/2017/03/30/operatic-objects-conference-report-by-hayley-fenn/