This weekend marks the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. Radio 3 is celebrating with ‘Britten 100’, a weekend of programmes. I thought I’d celebrate too with some personal memories from my younger years of listening to and performing some of his works…
In 1966, the Canadian conductor Arthur Davison, who had made his home near Croydon, started up a series of children’s concerts at the Fairfield Halls. These popular concerts were full of light classical music, held on Saturday mornings and my brother and I went each season. I’m sure that Britten’s Young persons guide to the orchestra would have featured.
First performed in 1957, Noyes Fludde by Britten is a setting of the Chester Miracle Play of the story of Noah’s Ark for principal singers, plus a children’s chorus and orchestra, supplemented by recorders, handbells, organ and trumpeters. The part of Noye (Noah) was written for English bass Owen Brannigan, and the Fairfield secured his services to sing Noye in their production in 1968. The production involved all the local schools in Croydon, and was repeated regularly for many years.
I was in it twice. The first time in 1971 as part of the children’s chorus of animals and birds that trooped down through the audience, two by two, to take our places in the ark. Dressed in brown tunics and tights, we all had headdresses made by the local art college. I was a cuckoo!
It must have been one of Brannigan’s last performances. Already in his sixties, he was in a car crash in 1972 and never fully recovered, dying in 1973. It was great fun, and the hymn Eternal Father which is incorporated into the work has been one of my favourites ever since.
The second time was 1976, and this time I was playing violin in the orchestra which comprised members of Croydon Philharmonic supplemented with members of the Croydon Schools First Orchestra. It was a real community performance – with children and adults performing and playing side by side. There were handbell ringers and trumpeters in the Royal Box, the massed recorders of Croydon Schools in the choir stalls, and presiding over it all was Arthur Davison.
For a busy conductor, he did a lot for children – conducting the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (CYPO) in both its regular rehearsals and school holiday orchestral camp-type sessions. He was a larger than life character, in size and manner, and was a hard taskmaster – but when we played well he was appreciative. I ended up as principal second violin in CYPO, and was consequently always seated directly in front of him. I can still recall him barking at me at one orchestra school, ‘I can’t see you,’ referring to my overlong and floppy fringe – which I got my mum to trim (that was brave!) back home. The next day, he grinned at me.
Bringing us back to Britten, one of the pieces we played during one season of the orchestral school, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which I love. They were a joy to play, and remain a joy to listen to. I shall leave you with a Youtube clip played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.