His wiry grey hair was ominously flat. The quicksilver energy had evaporated. The demon tennis-player found it hard even to hold a racquet. The fanatic who plunged into the sea five times a day could no longer swim.The finest accompanist in England had abandoned the piano, even for his own pleasure. Britain’s pre-eminent composer had lost confidence in himself. His manuscript paper was virtually blank.
Benjamin Britten was a shadow of his former self. In 1973, after completing his opera Death in Venice, he had had emergency heart surgery, and suffered a stroke on the operating table. He survived, just, but came out of hospital an invalid, often confined to a wheelchair. With a severely weakened right hand, composing was physically arduous. But, worse than that, he had lost his mental stamina. His friends looked desperately for someone to re-charge his musical batteries.
Letters from the Queen
The person who came to the rescue was the Queen. In a series of previously undisclosed handwritten letters, now stored at the Britten-Pears Library in Suffolk, she stimulated him to take up his composing pencil once again, to write one of his most charming song cycles. More than 20 years earlier, she had publicly commissioned him to write an opera for the Coronation, Gloriana. This time the commission was private and personal – a generous act of royal patronage.
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‘Dear Ben,’ she wrote from Buckingham Palace in January 1975. That in itself is startling. But so are the two sides of her strong, elegant handwriting, familiar to most of us only from her official ‘Elizabeth R’ signature. Letters are normally sent on her behalf by a lady-in-waiting, but this was her own doing. She had a request to make, she said, not as a queen, but as a daughter. Her mother’s 75th birthday was coming up in August, and she wanted Ben to write some music for her. ‘Please try’, she added.
Britten took up her offer immediately. He said he wasn’t strong enough to compose a symphony, and suggested some songs for voice and harp, using poems by Robert Burns, in honour of the Queen Mother’s Scottish blood. Back came another letter from the Queen, this time from Sandringham. She was relieved he had shied away from a symphony, and thought the songs right for her mother, if they were short and musically satisfying.
Britten, who had recently managed to write a short suite for orchestra, set to work with a will. He and the Queen exchanged further letters, discussing the particular Burns poems he wanted to use. The Queen showed lively and detailed enthusiasm for the words, which was just as well, since Britten was so fired up with the project that he had already written the music for them. He proposed the title A Birthday Hansel, although the Queen confessed she had never heard of the Scottish word ‘hansel’, meaning a gift to bring someone luck. She added that she and the Duke of Edinburgh were just off for a fortnight to Jamaica, Hong Kong and Japan, as if they were going off on holiday rather than attending a Commonwealth Conference and making a State Visit.
Soon after their return, the Queen wrote again. The ceremonial post of Master of the Queen’s Music had fallen vacant, and she wanted to know whether Britten was interested. Once more it was a ‘Dear Ben’ handwritten letter from Buckingham Palace. Astonishingly, she made clear it was a personal matter between the two of them, to discover whether he would like to be asked officially. One might have expected a private secretary to do the sounding out before an official approach from the Queen. But this was the other way round. It was presumably a further attempt to encourage the composer. Britten politely declined, on grounds of ill health, but the birthday songs were ready and waiting.
The Queen Mother joins the rallying call
Unaware of her daughter’s initiative, the Queen Mother herself was doing her bit to bolster Britten’s self-confidence. As the new patron of his Aldeburgh Festival, she arrived to hear his orchestral suite, which she called ‘your glorious new piece’. She also went to lunch at his house, which she said was ‘a real pleasure… and that delicious cold champagne was just right after a journey by helicopter’.
When she turned 75 in August, one of the presents she opened was the manuscript of A Birthday Hansel. A few days later, at the Castle of Mey, her remote hideaway on the north coast of Scotland, she sent Britten a three-page thank you letter on pale blue paper, in her own beautiful hand. ‘Dear Ben,’ she said, ‘I don’t think that I have ever had a more wonderful surprise in my life than the moment when I set eyes on your Birthday Hansel. I am absolutely thrilled and delighted by this glorious birthday gift, and I do want to thank you with all my heart for your kindness in composing this very special & exciting music. The poems are so touching & beautiful, and Ruth [her lady-in-waiting, Lady Fermoy, the grandmother of the then Lady Diana Spencer] has just been playing the harp music on our old upright [piano] here! I honestly do not think that anything in my life has given me greater pleasure than your birthday gift.’
Britten’s swan song
The following January, Britten went to Norfolk to hear his work sung at Lady Fermoy’s house, by the tenor Peter Pears and the harpist Osian Ellis. The audience was small: the Queen Mother, her two daughters (the Queen and Princess Margaret), Lady Fermoy and Britten’s nurse, a reminder of how frail the composer still was. By then, he had completed two of his greatest late pieces, the cantata Phaedra and the third string quartet. His creative imagination was in full flow once more. The Queen’s medicine had worked.
In November that year, Britten celebrated his last birthday. He was now confined to bed, slipping in and out of consciousness. Friends came round to drink rather forlorn glasses of champagne, and went upstairs one by one to say goodbye to Britten, who had only days to live. One thing was bothering him. The recording of A Birthday Hansel was out, but no one had sent copies to the Queen and Queen Mother. He arranged for them to be sent the next day.
The Queen Mother replied by return of post, clearly aware that time was of the essence. In words of touching sensitivity, she took her own farewell of ‘dear Ben’ as she thanked him for the LP. ‘I shall never forget that happy day when you & Peter & Osian Ellis came over to Norfolk, & we sat in Ruth’s little house listening to the lovely music. It was a wonderful experience, and when I play this record, I shall think of that day, and of the great happiness that you gave me – with thanks which are from my heart, Ever yours, Elizabeth R.’
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