Queen Elizabeth II established a connection with Aldeburgh that was both public and personal. With the sad news of Her Majesty’s passing, we take this opportunity to look back at her association with the history of Snape Maltings and her friendship with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
The link was made as early as 1952 when, with what started as a suggestion from the Queen’s cousin, the Seventh Earl of Harewood, Britten began work with librettist William Plomer on an opera that was to portray an episode in the life of Elizabeth I. The completed work was dedicated to Her Majesty in honour of her Coronation. Based on Lytton Strachey’s study of the relationship between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex, the new opera was christened Gloriana. The gala premiere took place at the Royal Opera House on the 8 June 1953.
Eight days prior to the premiere Britten was awarded the Order of the Companion of Honour. This was in recognition of his gift to the Queen, but more importantly it was an acknowledgement of his achievements to date as a composer. Further royal awareness of his work can be seen in Britten’s answering the Duke of Edinburgh’s request for a new piece for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the Jubilate Deo in C, which was first performed in July 1961. Prince Philip visited Aldeburgh the following year, during which time he officially opened the Festival Club. This was an event mentioned by the Queen when she and Prince Philip both attended the Festival on the 2 June 1967. The occasion this time was to mark a turning point in the Festival’s history with the opening of the converted Snape Maltings into a concert hall.
The visit began with the Queen greeting crowds at the Moot Hall in Aldeburgh High Street and then continued on to The Red House, where Her Majesty and Prince Philip took lunch with Britten and Pears, a fact which is recalled for visitors to our site today. The inaugural concert at the Maltings took place later in the afternoon. In her speech the Queen commended the effort that had gone into creating a new home for the centre for artistic development.
"Starting on a small scale, and perhaps partly as an act of faith, you have built up a Festival and you have encouraged the Arts to flower in the soil of this pleasant part of Suffolk. This has been done by your own devoted efforts and by those of your team of enthusiastic experts and with the support of the people who live round about. The news of your success has spread far and wide in Britain and beyond our shores and now those with a true interest in the Arts come here for their refreshment and pleasure. I congratulate you and the architect and the builders, and I have much pleasure in declaring open the Maltings Concert Hall and Opera House."
The first music heard in the new concert hall was an arrangement of the National Anthem that Britten had originally composed in 1961 for the Leeds Festival Chorus and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Beginning quietly, the piece builds gradually until the chorus proclaim its exuberant closing refrain. The Queen had known various versions of the anthem, although she maintained that this was the one she most preferred. In 1967 it was performed with slightly reduced orchestration by the Chorus of East Anglian Choirs and the English Chamber Orchestra, all under Britten’s direction.
The Queen’s own faith in the Maltings was reaffirmed when, after fire destroyed the building in 1969, she returned to attend the opening concert of an entirely rebuilt hall in June 1970.
Starting on a small scale, and perhaps partly as an act of faith, you have built up a Festival and you have encouraged the Arts to flower in the soil of this pleasant part of Suffolk.
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II
Her Majesty’s friendship with Britten is evident in her correspondence with him, in which formality and warmth of tone were often combined. The content of these later letters shows her concern for his own failing health and yet there was also trust in his innate ability as a composer. She wrote with confidence about his fulfilling a thoughtful secret commission, a gift for Her Majesty the Queen Mother’s seventy-fifth birthday, the song cycle of Burns poems A Birthday Hansel which was first performed for the Queen Mother by Pears and harpist Osian Ellis.
In June 1976 the Queen bestowed on Britten an honour in recognition of his life’s work. He became the first musician to be made a Peer of the Realm, an act that brought national awareness to the cultural contribution he had made to the world before and during her reign. This appreciation and affection were communicated more intimately to Pears six months later when Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh sent him a telegram expressing their condolence on learning of the composer’s death.
Britten’s final work commemorated the Queen’s past and looked forward to her future. The Welcome Ode, op. 95, which was orchestrated by Colin Matthews, was written for the Silver Jubilee and was first performed, after the composer’s death, on the 11 July 1977. The Suffolk Schools’ Choir and Orchestra joined forces at the Ipswich Corn Exchange on that day to play Britten’s music for the visiting monarch and to sing with enjoyment his setting of Thomas Dekker and John Ford’s early seventeenth-century poetry: ‘Bow to the sun, to our queen, and that fair one’.
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