In the Media

Opera Canada article, Spring, 2013

Britten in Canada: A Continuing Connection

A Britten Festival of Song celebrates the centenary of the greatest English composer of the 20th century, who was born on St Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1913. In the course of two recitals in the Glenn Gould Studio and our final concert in Walter Hall, we present an overview of the music for voices and piano of the composer who has become so important to us in our presentations over more than thirty years. Firstly, let us point out that our inauguration in 1982 of the Aldeburgh Connection and its concert presentations was by no means the first example of a link between the English coastal town and the major cities of Canada.

“Canada is an extraordinary place. I am certain that N. America is the place of the future. I wish to goodness you would come across . . . Seriously, do think about it, and if I see anything at all possible I’ll let you know.” Thus Benjamin Britten wrote to his sister, Beth, on 25 June 1939 from Toronto. On 29 April, he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, had set sail from Southampton on the Ausonia, following the example of their friends, the writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who for various reasons, both artistic and political, had left for New York a few months earlier. The ship called in briefly at Quebec City on 9 May, but the two men disembarked in Montreal on the 10th. They were welcomed by the music department of the CBC, who had intended to mark Britten’s arrival with a broadcast of the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – “but the band wasn’t big or good enough & anyhow, the boat was late”. They spent four weeks in St Jovite, north of Montreal in the Laurentians, where work was done on the composition of the Violin Concerto and the song-cycle, Les Illuminations. Then, on 7 June, they boarded the train for Toronto.

Three weeks here, staying at the Alexandra Palace, Orde Street (on the site of the present Mount Sinai Hospital) were very productive. The performance of the Frank Bridge Variations finally took place, preceded by what Britten called a “horrible interview”. This was broadcast, as well as a recital in which Pears may have sung the cycle On This Island. The composer wrote to Ralph Hawkes, his publisher: “Here is a continent just leaping ahead in the arts. Music means something here. Imagine English newpapers interviewing composers! Yet here I got a large amount of space in each of the three Toronto newspapers – & in 2 cases in the centre page!” On 23 June, Britten and Pears travelled to Bala (in “the Moskoka lakes”) where the singer had several lessons with Campbell McInnes, the English baritone who premiered Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad songs and several works by Vaughan Williams, and emigrated to Toronto in 1910. Finally, on 27 June, the two men travelled to New York. They were to spend the next three years in the USA – but on 16 March 1942 they boarded MS Axel Johnson, responding to the composer’s overwhelming desire to return to his homeland. When the ship called in briefly in Halifax, Britten picked up a volume of medieval poems in a bookshop. On the voyage, he set some of these as his Ceremony of Carols – a final Canadian contribution on his first North American sojourn.

Seven years later, Britten’s career and reputation had taken a quantum leap forward with the success of the opera Peter Grimes in 1945. His first postwar visit to Canada was in the fall of 1949, when he and Pears gave recitals in Ottawa (October 31), Toronto (November 1) and Montreal (November 3). While in Toronto, they listened to a tape of a CBC performance of Peter Grimes – the Canadian premiere, broadcast on October 12. Conducted by Geoffrey Waddington, with William Morton in the title role, Frances James (Adaskin) as Ellen Orford and Gordon Wry as Bob Boles, they found the result ‘truly magnificent’. Also in Toronto, on November 2, Britten conducted his new cantata St Nicolas in Grace Church-on-the-Hill, a performance (also broadcast by CBC) which featured Pears as the saint – and our friend James MacDougall (now an Emeritus Director of the Aldeburgh Connection) in the small, but crucial, role of the boy Nicolas.

In 1957, the Canadian premiere was of the opera The Turn of the Screw, given at the Stratford Festival in August and September by the English Opera Group. The cast was British, but the chamber orchestra was of Canadian musicians, some performances being conducted by the composer and some by Charles Mackerras. The clarinettist and orchestral manager was Ezra Schabas, later to become professor at the University of Toronto and principal of the Royal Conservatory of Music. The stage director was Basil Coleman, who was then living in Toronto. Pears and Britten also gave three recitals in the Festival. In his letters back home, Pears makes no secret of the boredom of a summer spent in rural Ontario. One weekend, however, they – Britten, Pears and Coleman – escaped to Bayfield, “to a Lake [Huron] 400 (?) miles wide to bathe; Ben complained that it wasn’t salt & was too warm, but the Inn where we stayed [the Little Inn] was kinda cute, and gave us lots of lovely food, & we had Scotch out of tooth mugs up in our bedroom”.

On Labour Day weekend, they made a mad Sunday morning dash on congested roads to visit the former partner of Campbell McInnes (now deceased), Tom Jackson, who was still living in Bala. “Our hosts overfed us grossly in the Transatlantic style on stuffed chickens & sweet corn & relishes & peach pie & old-fashioneds, & meatloaf (farm style) & squash & pickles & wine jelly & so-on . . .” On Monday, they enjoyed a tour “around the very lovely belaked & wooded country”. In the evening they had to drive down to Toronto to record a CBC recital. “But the thunder roared & the rain fell upon us in solid streams, & there were a million people going the same way . . .” However, the CBC waited and all went well. There were two Toronto sequels to the EOG’s visit. In December, an article was published in May Fair magazine by Naomi Adaskin (wife of John Adaskin) entitled “Evenings with Benjamin Britten”; and on December 18, Basil Coleman directed a production of Britten’s Let’s Make an Opera at the Crest Theatre.

On 15 March 1962, Pears and Britten undertook a crowded recital tour of Canada, with concerts in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Saskatoon, Toronto and Montreal, returning to London on 7 April. During their stay in Vancouver (the composer’s only visit to western Canada), they took part in a CBC television recording showcasing the Nocturne, Op. 60, in rehearsal and performance (now available on DVD). In addition, Britten was interviewed by Peter Garvie for CBC’s Music Diary and he and Pears recorded four mini-recitals, later broadcast on CBC Wednesday Night as “An Anthology of English Songs”.

The composer’s last visit to this country was in 1967. He and Pears were to give an extended recital tour through the USA, Mexico and South America; but first, they flew to Montreal on 9 September to be present at the EOG’s performances at Expo ’67, including Britten’s Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Beggar’s Opera. During his stay in Montreal, Britten gave a substantial interview for Opera Canada. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, of course, Pears made a number of visits on his own for oratorio engagements and for recital appearances with harpist Osian Ellis when Britten was no longer well enough to accompany the singer. On 14 November 1976, they gave a Toronto recital in aid of the Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation. The next day, Pears flew to Montreal to sing St Nicolas, but had to return immediately to Aldeburgh to be present at Britten’s deathbed.

The Canadian Aldeburgh Foundation, which continues to provide scholarships which enable young singers and instrumentalists to study at the Britten-Pears Young Artists’ Programme in Aldeburgh, has been one of the most beneficial and longlasting results of the composer’s Canadian connection. It was while attending the Britten-Pears School in 1977 on a scholarship from the CAF that Bruce Ubukata rapidly found himself taken on as accompanist and coach, and in the process made the acquaintance of another pianist working there, Stephen Ralls. The rest, as they say, is history . . .