In this week's blog, Robert Saxton tells the story of his correspondence with Benjamin Britten.
When I was nine, in response to my apparently endless questions about how to ‘be a composer’, my medical mother suggested that I wrote to Benjamin Britten. We lived in London but, as my Suffolk-born father’s family all lived in Norfolk and we spent all holidays there, my mother knew that Britten lived in Aldeburgh. As nine-year-old fools rush in where angels fear to tread, I followed her advice, promptly receiving a reply from abroad. Britten was about to conduct his fiftieth birthday Prom at the Royal Albert Hall and suggested that I ‘go round and see him afterwards and we can make a plan’. My violin teacher accompanied me and, as directed, took me backstage, where I was ‘deposited’ in front of the great man. ‘My, aren’t we tall’, he said, ‘you’d better come and see me in Aldeburgh’.
For some time after this, whenever I sent him a composition, he would respond with alacrity, making professional comments and corrections. When, aged 12, I wrote an opera Cinderella for my school friends, which we staged for Oxfam, typically, Britten sent the entire cast a ‘good luck’ telegram for the performance. He was invariably as good as his word and, knowing that we were often in Norfolk, he asked me to see him at the Red House, where he gave me a wonderful lesson on my setting of Gray’s Elegy in a country churchyard and accompanied my embarrassingly adolescent violin playing. I recall my mother and sister collecting me, and us all having tea and jam sandwiches in the Red House sitting room.
Throughout my boarding school years, we kept in touch, and Britten unfailingly remembered my birthday with a card each year. It was due, indirectly, to his advice that I went, at the age of 16, to study with Elisabeth Lutyens; although Britten’s musical influence on my life inevitably waned after this, we remained in touch until his death in 1976 and I am eternally grateful for his humanity, time, care and, at all times, one hundred percent professionalism in guiding me at such a formative period of my life. The correspondence from both Britten and Lutyens to me, totalling over 100 items, is now held in the British Library.