Britten 100: visiting Britten's birthplace in Suffolk

Elizabeth Davis heads to Suffolk to discover the landscape that so influenced Benjamin Britten


Britten on Aldeburgh beachFew composers seem to be as connected with place as Benjamin Britten.

The composer, whose centenary falls this month, was born in Lowestoft and spent most of his life, one way or another, in the flat, water-logged landscape of Suffolk. He and his partner Peter Pears were the driving force behind Aldeburgh's now-thriving music scene and the concert hall at Snape Maltings was built during his lifetime.

But there's more to it than that, a trip to Aldeburgh and Snape has become something of a pilgrimage – but why? And what, if anything, can it add to your understanding of Britten's haunting music?

My trip begins haltingly, with a train announcement that the Suffolk line from Ipswich is closed because of an emergency. Somehow, it feels appropriate that the journey to the most Eastern station in the UK isn't entirely straightforward.

Lowestoft itself, when I eventually arrive, is a mixed bag. Clearly once it was something like Eastbourne – around the time Britten himself was born here in 1913. Now it's rather more run down, but the sea front and fishing port are still charming.

There's no trouble spotting Britten's birthplace as, appropriately enough for his birthday weekend, the house is festooned in balloons (below). What was once Britten Senior's dentist's surgery is now a B&B overlooking the seafront but for this centenary weekend, staff from the Red House had moved in, complete with information boards and a mini-exhibition.

Lowestoft birthplaceThere was the rocking horse on which the young Britten and his siblings would play, rocking on it so violently that their father would come running from the surgery below, worried the roof was going to fall in. Upstairs you could see the room the composer shared with his brother (along with a board telling a recognisable story of sibling rivalry – whenever the young Benjamin wanted to irritate his brother, Robert, he would pick a moment when his brother was playing the piano and say to their mother 'I've had a thought', which meant he wanted to compose something. Poor Robert would be removed from the piano so Ben's 'thought' wouldn't be lost. His sister, Beth, said the the siblings all saw through the trick, but his mother never did.)

The landscape of the county is a world apart from most of the rest of England: the reedy marshes here are some of the last surviving areas of this habitat left in the country. So you can find animals here which have disappeared from the rest of the UK, from marsh harriers to satin wave moths.

Snape MaltingsThe land is flat and waterlogged and the coast gives way meekly to the sea – not like the violence of the Atlantic coastline in Cornwall, for example, where the two elements fight for space.

Of course such a dramatic environment found it's way into Britten's music occasionally. Listen to the Four Sea interludes from his opera Peter Grimes and you can picture the pebbly Aldeburgh beach, listen to the panic in Noye's Fludde at the first sign of rain and you have an insight into what it's like to live in this water-logged county.

But that's no to say you can't enjoy Britten's music without visiting Suffolk – of course you can, but seeing the towns in which he grew up and chose to spend his life does throw a different light on his work, the way a shaft of sun might suddenly appear through the vast grey skies over the North Sea.

You can listen again to Radio 3's Benjamin Britten's centenary weekend on the Radio 3 website

Photo top right: Britten on Aldeburgh Beach 1959 photographed by Hans Wild. Other photographs by Elizabeth Davis

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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