Benjamin Britten—violist. Find out what our archives tell us about the composer’s beautiful 19th-century viola and the story of its ownership

‘Benjamin was a very good violist.’ This rare comment on Britten’s facility with the viola came from violinist Charles Coleman, son of Mr. C.J.R. Coleman, organist of St John’s Church, Lowestoft which Britten attended as a child. The younger Mr Coleman recalled Britten’s viola playing when, in the spring of 2003, he paid a visit to The Red House. Having performed with the composer on several occasions (with Britten playing either viola or piano), he was well placed to judge his musicianship.

Britten took up the viola at the age of 9. Although it never replaced the piano as the composer’s first instrument of choice, it remained important to him. Diary entries in the 1920s and 30s mention his diligent practice and lessons on the instrument with his teacher Audrey Alston. And during these early years, chamber pieces and works for orchestra that he composed, such as his Introduction and Allegro for Viola and Strings of 1929, indicate how it captured his imagination. Significant later works, notably the John Dowland-influenced Lachrymae, op. 48, show that this interest never waned. Originally composed for viola and piano and premiered by William Primrose during the 1950 Aldeburgh Festival, Britten arranged the piece for viola and string orchestra for violist Cecil Aronowitz in the final year of his life.

A photograph of 1955 shows Britten in the company of fellow Aldeburgh Music Club (AMC) members rehearsing Schubert’s Quintet in C in Britten and Pears’ home, Crag House. It is the only image we have in which the composer is playing (or preparing to play) the viola.

PH/4/201 Britten with musicians of the Aldeburgh Music Club in rehearsal at Crag House, 1955. Photographer: Unknown

The instrument he possessed has an interesting history. A Certificate of Authentication from W.E. Hill & Sons informs us that it was made in 1843 by musician and instrument maker Francesco Guissani. It is thought to have been used by him when he was a member of the orchestra of La Scala, Milan. According to Charles Beare, of J & A Beares Ltd, the instrument is very similar to those made by the 18th century Milanese maker, Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi.

Certificate of Authentication from Hill & Sons noting sale of the Guissani viola to Frank Bridge in March 1905

After Guissani’s death, the viola was sold through Hill & Sons to composer and violist Frank Bridge. Bridge’s importance to Britten is of course well known and is in part symbolized by a touching gesture Bridge made when Britten and Pears embarked on their journey to North America in 1939. According to biographer Humphrey Carpenter, when Britten and Pears arrived at Southampton on 29th April they found Frank and Ethel Bridge waiting for them at the docks. As they boarded the Ausonia, bound for Quebec, Bridge gave Britten his viola, with a note that read: ‘so that a bit of us accompanies you on your adventure. We are all ‘revelations’ as you know. Just go on expanding. Ever your affectionate & devoted Ethel & Frank Bon voyage et bon retour’.

Frank Bridge’s note to Britten, April 1939

The viola remained in Britten’s possession and, as we can tell from the AMC rehearsal photograph, he must have enjoyed playing it on those few occasions when time permitted. The next instalment in the viola’s history occurs seven years after the composer’s death when a young violist, Paul Cassidy, attended a course at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies. At its conclusion he played Lachrymae. Unknown to him, Pears was in the audience and was clearly impressed with his performance. When he learned that Cassidy did not own a viola, he offered him the Guissani on loan. At the time the viola was kept in an old case under the piano in The Red House drawing room. It had not been played for years and was in need of some conservation.

Cassidy took the viola to Beares, where it was restored to good condition. For nearly three decades he continued to play it professionally, as a member of the Brodsky Quartet. Constantly aware of its ownership, he relished working with what he described as ‘a piece of history.’ Eventually it was returned it to The Red House in May 2009 and for the next few years the instrument was a key item in our permanent exhibition. At the moment, the viola Britten played as a child can be seen on exhibit. The instrument that Bridge gave to his friend and pupil as he left for America in 1939 can be heard making music again as it is currently on loan to Hélène Clément of the Doric String Quartet.

Paul Cassidy holding Britten’s viola in the Library, in Bridge and Britten’s company, 2009

- Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian