Magazine article Opera Canada

Britten in Canada: A Continuing Connection

Magazine article Opera Canada

Britten in Canada: A Continuing Connection

Article excerpt

"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 artistic and political reasons had left for New York a few months earlier. The Ausonia called 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, which had intended to mark Britten's arrival with a broadcast of his 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-Jovitc, 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.

Their three weeks in the city, 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 CBC was delighted with the concerts and commissioned a new piece from the composer. (This became Young Apollo, a concerto for piano, string quartet and string orchestra.) Britten wrote to Ralph Hawkes, his publisher: "Here is a continent just leaping ahead in the arts. Music means something here. Imagine English newspapers 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 had premiered George Butterworth's Shropshire Lad songs and several works by Ralph Vaughan Williams and emigrated to Toronto in 1919. Finally, on 27 June, Britten and Pears travelled to New York. In the next few months, two works with Canadian connections were written. Firstly, Young Apollo, the premiere of which Britten performed on a brief return visit to Toronto in August. Also, in December 1939, he completed an orchestral piece, Canadian Carnival (originally Kermesse Canadienne), based on folktunes he had heard while staying in Quebec. They spent the next three years in the U.S., until, on 16 March 1942, they boarded MS Axel Johnson in response 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 following the success of Peter Grimes in 1945. His first postwar visit to Canada was in the fall of 1949, when he and Pears gave recitals in Ottawa (Oct. 31), Toronto (Nov. 1) and Montreal (Nov. 3). While in Toronto, they listened to a tape of a CBC performance of Peter Grimes, the Canadian premiere, broadcast on Oct. 12. Conducted by Geoffrey Waddington, with William Morton in the title role, Frances James as Ellen Orford and Gordon Wry as Bob Boles, they found the result "truly magnificent." Also in Toronto, on Nov. 2, Britten conducted his new cantata, St Nicolas, in Grace Church-on-the-Hill, a performance (also broadcast by CBC) that featured Pears as the saint and a Toronto boy, James MacDougall, in the small but crucial role of Nicolas as a child. …

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