Britten in Northampton, 1943

While writing my study of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, I came across a source relating to Benjamin Britten which seems not to have been noticed by scholars to date. The connection with Britten is the anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, which Hussey commissioned in 1943 for his church, of St Matthew, Northampton. The correspondence between Britten and Hussey in relation to the commission has been integrated into the standard edition of Britten’s Letters, and copies lodged at the Britten-Pears Library. The making of the anthem is documented at length in chapter 3 of my book, which should be published in 2017.

The source in question is among the Hussey Papers, held at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester (MS336). A small notebook, it is a record, made soon after the event, of Britten’s visit to Northampton on Sunday 1st August, bringing with him manuscript copies of the anthem. Hussey and Britten lunched together, heard the choir, and settled down for some conversation over tea in the Vicarage. The notes Hussey made, much of which are in the form of verbatim quotation, shed light on some matters of interest in relation to Britten more widely.

The first is Britten’s views on Christianity. The degree to which Britten had any personal faith has occupied his several biographers over the years, with different results. The man of faith that appears in the work of Eric Walter White was replaced by both Humphrey Carpenter and Paul Kildea with a rather more mixed picture: for Kildea, he was at most ‘a deist in a theists’ world, a bar-room brawl he would never win.’ (Benjamin Britten, p.207). Whatever his own faith, Britten let Hussey know that he was glad to be working for the Church, and that, apart from a single piece – the Te Deum, for St Mark’s North Audley Street – he had never been asked to do so; not by any cathedral organist or anyone else. Hussey recorded Britten as saying:

Every real artist must really have some work in him to do for the Ch[urch]. He may not be a regular churchgoer but he must have a religion; more than that he must realise what art owes to the Ch[urch] & that much of the best has been done for the Ch[urch]. Their separation has been such a tremendous loss for both.

This generalised sense that the making of art was religious in some way was common amongst those Hussey patronised, Henry Moore among them. This seems to be the most explicit recorded statement of the idea that Britten made.

The other most extended comments from Britten that Hussey recorded relate to William Walton. Hussey had in fact approached Walton first, earlier in 1943, to write for St Matthew’s, but he had refused. The relationship between Britten and Walton has been written up as personally cordial, not to say friendly, but with an element of professional rivalry. ‘Entre nous’, Britten remarked:

I think he’s going through rather a bad patch now. [Having had] tremendous success, more than any other British composer, there looms a point after some success when a composer has to decide whether he will exploit that success in [the] same sort of way, or go on developing & not trouble about the success. I wish W.W. would do a little more serious music & not so much for films, wireless & the like.

Had Hussey got something from Walton, Britten thought, he might ‘have got something rather by rote – unless perhaps if you gave him a free hand to do just what he liked & not mind [something] shocking etc.’ Hussey was to bide his time, but as dean of Chichester cathedral succeeded in obtaining from Walton his Chichester Service in 1975.

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