Britten’s first prize was awarded to him at South Lodge School in 1927, aged 13, for badminton. He bought 4 miniature scores with the prize money: Haydn Symphony no. 2, as well as Beethoven Symphony no. 1 and String Quartets nos. 2 and 3. Britten went on to receive many more awards and honours, although quite soon for music rather than sport!
One of Britten’s final awards was his Life Peerage in 1976 at the age of 62. In May Prime Minister James Callaghan wrote to Britten in confidence saying that he would like to recommend to the Queen that she confer upon him a Barony in her forthcoming Birthday Honours list. Britten replied that he would be honoured to accept should the Queen wish to do so.
Britten would need to decide on a title as recommended by The Garter King of Arms, the principal adviser to the sovereign on matters of ceremony and heraldry. There followed some correspondence between Britten and The College of Arms discussing the form his title would take, settling on Baron Britten of Aldeburgh in the County of Suffolk.
Britten’s Life peerage was publicly announced in the Queen’s Birthday Honours on 12 June. A garden party celebration had been organised at the Red House for that day, but without explanation to the guests, as the news had to be kept secret until the official announcement.
In July Britten received his Letters patent, displayed in a red box, with notice that he should now sign and be referred to in his new style. The decorated initial letter of ‘Elizabeth’ is personalised for Britten. It shows reeds and a bearded tit, a breed of bird found flying across the top the reedbeds of Snape.
Included with the Letters patent was a writ summoning Britten to the House of Lords. However, he wrote to The House on 9 August ‘for health reasons I must be a very passive life Peer. In fact there is no question of my taking my seat in the House for the foreseeable future’.
Some would have wondered why Britten accepted this life Peerage. However, he was the first composer to be honoured in this way and Pears suggested that Britten accepted the honour not for himself but for music. Whatever the reason, the honour was a firm recognition of Britten’s music and his life’s work at a point when he was seriously ailing.
- Judith Ratcliffe, Archivist