“Some day soon… a study must be made of the interplay between between Britten’s interpreters and the music he has composed for them, as close as that of a master choreographer with his dancers. The Governess in Turn of the Screw, Penelope Rich, Tytania, Mrs Julian in Owen Wingrave – together they form a portrait of Jennifer Vyvyan’s high-strung artistic personality and voice; to some extent she is their ‘creator’ in a fuller sense than just that of being their first performer.”
– Andrew Porter, Financial Times, August 1971
First contacts: Beggar’s Opera, Albert Herring & Rape of Lucretia
Rivalled only by Purcell and Elgar as the greatest of English composers, and recognised internationally among the supreme creative genuises of modern times, Britten flourished within a distinctive culture that he established around himself at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast. There was (and there remains) a Britten world in terms of people, place, ideas and ethos, privileging vocal music. And Jennifer Vyvyan was very much a part of that world, playing a key role in the realisation of the music and its establishment in repertoire – through 25 years, 9 operatic roles, and regular performances of works for voice and orchestra like Les Illuminations, Spring Symphony, Cantata Academica, and the War Requiem. Many of the performances were recorded, either commercially or for the BBC, and have such classic status that one can fairly expect them to be always available on disc.
She came to Britten’s music early, at the age of twenty when her diary notes that she attends an introduction to the opera Peter Grimes at Wigmore Hall in May 1945 and then goes to the premiere production at Sadlers Wells in June. The following year she spends her birthday listening to a radio broadcast of the same piece.
But her first known contact with Britten appears in a diary entry for 26 Jan 1948 that notes an audition before him and Eric Crozier (stage director and fellow-director of the English Opera Group, founded the year before) at Wigmore Hall.
It obviously went well because the result was a contract to sing Jenny Diver later the same year in an EOG tour of The Beggar’s Opera – a new realisation of the 1728 ballad score that Britten had just completed. Britten conducted; the cast was led by Peter Pears as Macheath; and the director was Tyrone Guthrie (whose withering dismissal of Pears’s ‘unmanly’ performance meant that Guthrie never worked with the Group again).
Things happened fast in music then, in ways they couldn’t now. After her January audition, Vyvyan met up with Britten and Guthrie at what was then Britten’s London flat in Oxford Square. Rehearsals began in April. And the show opened in May in Cambridge, before a hectic tour of the the kind that became standard with EOG productions – to Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Scheveningen and Cheltenham (all in June), then Belgium (July), then Birmingham and Sadlers Wells in London, with a radio broadcast (all September). And at just 23, with pre-Raphaelite good-looks and a sense of fun, Vyvyan clearly made an impression in her otherwise modest role of a provocative young trollop.
Also for the EOG, she sang Nancy in Britten’s Albert Herring – alternating with Nancy Evans who had created the role, alongside Peter Pears and Joan Cross – as it toured to Cheltenham and Sadlers Wells, with a substantial run at the People’s Palace in London’s Mile End Road.
Ivan Clayton, a contemporary of the composer from their student days at the Royal College, shared the conducting with Britten himself. And Clayton would become an important figure in Vyvyan’s life, as a guide and mentor who (in her own words) ‘helped me form my musical taste’.
Read more about Ivan Clayton and his role in Vyvyan’s life
Herring was in fact a significant piece for her in that it recurred throughout her career as she progressed through almost all the female roles it offered – from the young love-interest Nancy to the middle-aged Miss Wordsworth and eventually the ageing battleaxe Lady Billows.
Even more remarkable, it seems that she came close to starting off with the low-voiced role of Albert’s mother when Herring opened at Glyndebourne in 1947. At that point, Vyvyan had joined the company as a mezzo, singing in the chorus but with obvious potential as a soloist; and from her diary entries, read alongside notes that passed between Glyndebourne’s music staff, it seems that she was under consideration for Mrs Herring but decided against it. In retrospect a wise move.
In 1949 she established a presence at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival, sharing a concert of Bach cantatas with Peter Pears. And for EOG, also at Aldeburgh, she sang the solo role of Female Chorus in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, touring to Cheltenham, Copenhagen and Oslo, with a BBC broadcast.
As her involvement with the EOG developed, Vyvyan was drawn into the charmed circle of Britten’s chosen artists. There were projects like the 1951 Rescue of the Penelope – a radio feature about the return of Odysseus after the Trojan Wars, originally aired in 1943 with words by Edward Sackville-West and music by Britten but subsequently turned into a concert cantata.
Trips to Aldeburgh became a regular feature of her life. And so did the Harewood set.
A cousin of the new Queen Elizabeth II and unusually musical for a member of the royal family, it was Lord Harewood who suggested that Britten write an opera for Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953.
The piece was Gloriana, and it premiered 8th June at a Covent Garden royal gala whose audience had reservations about the dark, un-celebratory treatment of its heroine, the first Queen Elizabeth. So did the press. And the muted reception of what was expected to be a social and artistic triumph wounded Britten badly – although subsequent performances before a less ‘official’ audience were more warmly welcomed. According to witnesses including Vyvyan herself, one reason for the quiet applause on the opening night was the fact that everyone wore 1950s full court dress. Including white silk gloves.
Vyvyan remembers Gloriana
Joan Cross took the lead, but with Vyvyan creating the significant seconda donna role of the fiery love-interest Lady Rich: a role she almost certainly inspired as much as she inhabited.
After the initial Covent Garden staging, by Basil Coleman, the show travelled to Rhodesia – but without Vyvyan, who had other commitments and resisted Britten’s entreaties that she was essential to the tour. Her part was taken by Joan Sutherland who, a year younger than Vyvyan, had just begun to take substantial solo roles at the Garden.
But Vyvyan returned to Lady Rich when the opera was given in concert at the Festival Hall for Britten’s 50th birthday, 22 November 1963. And she took the role again onstage when Britten revised the opera for a new Sadlers Wells production in October 1966 (director Colin Graham).
The production was revived, with Vyvyan still singing Lady Rich, in August 1972 – by which time the Sadlers Wells company had moved into the London Coliseum. The following month it toured to Germany as part of the cultural exchange events surrounding the Munich Olympics, with dignitaries like Prime Minister Edward Heath going along for the ride.
Britten – Gloriana
Turn of the Screw
Britten had postponed work on Turn of the Screw, his opera based on Hentry James’s story about the ghostly possession of two children, to finish Gloriana in time for the coronation. But when he finally got down to it, the score was composed at lightning speed, to crazily tight deadlines and with a telling upfront commendation: ‘This opera was written for and is affectionately dedicated to those members of the English Opera Group who took part in the first performance’.
A letter from Britten to Vyvyan indicates that he had resolved to make this dedication the previous autumn, well before the compositional process began. And from the start she was his choice for the central role of the emotionally charged, fraught, tortured Governess. In fact it can be fairly said that the Screw turns around her voice and personality.
According to Vyvyan’s diary she collected her copy of the score on 24 June 1954, but that must have been the vocal reduction because Britten was still working on the full score a month later. After an initial London run-through, rehearsals began in Thorpeness, just up the coast from the Aldeburgh, on August 8th.
On Sep 7th she travelled with the cast to Venice, where the premiere took place at the Fenice Theatre as part of a music festival attached to the Venice Biennale on September 14th. Britten conducted, Basil Coleman directed. Designs were by John Piper. And the cast included Peter Pears, with David Hemmings (later to become a film star) as the boy Miles.
The immediate press response was mixed, with reservations about the subject matter, but singling out Vyvyan as ‘stupendous’.
Neville Cardus in the Manchester Guardian praised it for the best acting he had ‘ever seen from English opera artists. Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess brings to the part a grace, tenderness and natural ease of the period poise that make much of the opera not only amenable but even lovable’. The Times described her singing as a ‘major triumph’.
From then on, the Governess became Vyvyan’s trademark stage role, reprised in successive productions throughout the world. The Venice production came to London in October 1954, after an introductory lecture at Wigmore Hall at the end of September (with Vyvyan present) and a radio broadcast.
The London premiere at Sadlers Wells was accident-prone, with both Vyvyan and Pears suffering illnesses before the first night and other mishaps. And Vyvyan’s stress-levels weren’t helped by the fact that, during the run, she had other commitments like a St John Passion in Bath, an opera night in Neath, and a Messiah in Watford – though this may well have benefitted the neurotic edge her role required. The Evening Standard thought the whole piece jinxed by its own ghostly narrative.
Britten – Turn of the Screw - Miss Jessel, it was Miss Jessel
Britten – Turn of the Screw - final scene
The following January found Vyvyan recording the Screw at Decca’s studios in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead. And in Spring it went on tour again – to Schwetzingen, Munich, Florence, Aldeburgh, followed in July by Rotterdam, the Hague, Amsterdam, Bruges, as well as London in September (this time at the Scala Theatre, Charlotte St) and Cambridge in October.
It was hard work, and in circumstances that were often far from ideal. Vyvyan’s diary records a performance in Llangollen on an ‘unbelievable platform in a marquee. No curtain, no gauzes – broad daylight – hilarious’. Uncharacteristically for someone with his severe approach to work, Britten came (it seems) to see the funny side of what was otherwise disastrous. ‘Ben drank champagne and gave us some’, she writes. ‘Result Happiness’. But it wasn’t always like that. Britten was demanding, and his constant presence on these tours as the conductor could be tough. After one of the Scala dates Vyvyan writes: ‘Bothered by Ben talking about intonation and stridency just before the Screw performance. Went wrong all evening’.
Later years saw her sing the Governess in Paris (where her purse was stolen backstage at the Champs Elysee Theatre), Berlin, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds as well as further London and Aldeburgh stagings. And 1957 brought a tour to Canada where she apparently fell foul of her own attempts to keep the role alive and energised. Writing in her diary of the director Basil Cameron, she says ‘Basil C chewed me up – overacting – doing everybody’s part – seeing 6 ghosts instead one one etc’.
There was also a landmark TV production, based on the original Venice staging but with addition designs by John Piper to cover the orchestral interludes between scenes. It was the first time a Britten opera had been televised, and the first time any opera at all had appeared on independent TV – which perhaps explains why Britten was wary of the project. He handed over the conducting to Charles Mackerras, who had assisted on the touring shows. And Pears didn’t sing either, pleading prior engagements.
But it remained an EOG project, with the composer’s ultimate blessing, and was broadcast over two nights, Christmas 1959 – to what the TV director Peter Morley recounts in his memoirs as a viewing audience so low it failed to register on the standard measurement graphs (although subsequent research suggested just over 200,000 viewers: poor for TV but good for opera).
The Little Sweep
When Britten’s hybrid stagework Let’s Make an Opera premiered at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh in 1949, Vyvyan wasn’t part of it. But when the second part of the entertainment, The Little Sweep, came to be recorded in 1955, she sang the central, sympathetic role of Rowan, the maid who supports a group of children in their efforts to help a chimney-sweep’s boy escape his brutal master.
An interesting aspect of this recording is that, a year after Turn of Screw, it once again paired Vyvyan with the boy soprano David Hemmings. In the Screw he had played Miles and been, in a profoundly disturbing way, destroyed by Vyvyan’s good intentions as the Governess. But in Little Sweep he was saved by her good intentions as Rowan. And whether or not this was planned, it registers as therapeutic, like a kind of healing.
Britten – Little Sweep - Run poor sweep boy
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
On 11 February 1960 Jennifer Vyvyan was singing a performance of Britten’s Spring Symphony in Birmingham. Britten was conducting. And her diary entry for that day notes: ‘Saw Act 1 of new opera’.
The new opera was the score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which set Shakespeare’s text almost word for word (albeit with omissions) and was due to play in the refurbished but still cramped conditions of the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh that summer. After a BBC recording on 10 June (now available commercially on the Testament label), it opened the following night. And Vyvyan created the role of Tytania – which Britten eventually decided to spell with the archaic ‘y’, perhaps with reference to the ‘y’s that replace the ‘i’s in Vyvyan’s own name.
It had been with ‘i’ in a letter of 26 Oct 1959 which first suggests that Vyvyan should take the role – making the point that Britten has heard her voice ‘in everything that I’ve written so far’, and thanking her for enduring what were apparently the ‘difficult circumstances’ of the TV production of Turn of the Screw due for broadcast at the end of the year.
Britten - Midsummer Night’s Dream - opening duet (with Alfred Deller)
Britten - Midsummer Night’s Dream - Come now a roundel
Britten - Midsummer Night’s Dream - Be kind and courteous
The premiere of the Dream had historic consequences that resulted from Britten’s decision to cast the countertenor Alfred Deller as Oberon: a decision that did much to restore the countertenor voice to common hearing. Within the context of the piece it helped establish an ethereal sound world for the fairies, as did the stage direction of John Cranko (a choreographer by background) and the fantasy designs of John Piper.
A month after the premiere, the show travelled to Amsterdam with the same cast. And Vyvyan would later sing Tytania in a Colin Graham production with designs by Emanuele Luzzati that toured English venues 1969-71.
Graham’s staging also toured to Brussels…
…and to San Francisco in 1971, where the critic of the San Francisco Chronicle complained that he couldn’t hear the singing, except for Vyvyan who was ‘the strongest in all ways, in her pellucid soprano and pointed delivery, and the marvellous witchiness and sharply incised movements that gave an original tart slant to the role’.
A letter from Vyvyan to her husband records two San Francisco mishaps: one onstage, where ‘one of my older, rather dim fairies, with a heavy cold’ had to go on as Hippolyta’; the other offstage, where she was accosted after the show by ‘2 drunk or high black gents, who needled us about the war etc and were most unpleasant’. Fortunately, she could laugh about it.
Continuing relationship with Britten
A few months after the first international tour of Turn of the Screw, and shortly before the second, Britten sent Vyvyan a letter that makes telling comments about the title role in Peter Grimes. But with equal significance it adds that ‘one of my great wishes is to hear you sing Ellen some day’ – Ellen being the soprano lead in Grimes.
As things turned out, she never did sing that pivotal role for which she seemed destined, even though her 1958 diary mentions the possibility of a TV production in Canada the following year. And it begs the question, why?
She certainly kept abreast of where, when and by whom the piece was being done in the world, and occasionally reported her experiences back to Britten. In April 1955, for example, she sent him detailed observations of a staging she’d just seen in Amsterdam, deploring the brutishness of Frans Vroons in the title role (‘I could have killed him – or cheerfully thrown him to the borough worthies to be torn to pieces’) but praising the Ellen in generous terms that indicate what she herself might have made of the part.
It was, she writes, ‘a performance so lovely that I was near tears several times (oh your music Ben) and stranger though she was to me I went round afterwards to embrace her. I could hardly speak. Her name is Greet Koeman and she built up Ellen quietly (against that ranting swine) and sweetly until she suddenly gripped you by the throat.
‘Her voice – without being huge – seems able to dominate the ensemble whenever necessary…her ‘Embroidery’ left me gasping. She takes the lower notes lightly and sails over the difficulty of this dreadfully difficult aria Ben, with a poise and beauty I cannot imagine surpassable’.
The intimate, direct tone of this letter makes it clear enough that Vyvyan, by 1955, was well-established as a valued part of Britten’s musical environment. And the same conclusion can be drawn from other written exchanges.
Presents regularly passed between them (including a pair of red braces for Peter Pears after Vyvyan’s return from a trip to South Africa). And on Vyvyan’s marriage to Leon Crown in 1962 Britten and Pears gave her a Mary Potter painting as a wedding gift.
More public statements make this working friendship clear as well.
But several commentators, including Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, record a cooling of the relationship during the 1960s. John Amis, who had close access to the Britten circle through his wife, the EOG violinist Olive Zorian, says that at one point Britten cut Vyvyan dead in the street.
If this is so, the broader evidence for it is equivocal. Britten was certainly demanding of his performers and could be fiercely critical – not least of Vyvyan as she records in the previously mentioned diary entry about Screw in 1955.
But other entries tell a different story. On 5 October 1956 she writes: ‘Screw. Ben pleased’. And that seems to have been the more general response.
It does gives pause for thought, though, that after the first run of Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer of 1960, Vyvyan wasn’t engaged for the Covent Garden staging in February 1961. This may not be significant: there was a change of director (from John Cranko to John Gielgud), and changes throughout the cast, with Alfred Deller replaced by Russell Oberlin and no participation from Pears or Britten. And Vyvyan’s diary doesn’t suggest any resentment or animosity about her non-involvement. She goes to tea with Oberlin during his rehearsals. And on the opening night she watches the show from Britten’s box, going to the cast party afterwards and having ‘fun’ despite a headache.
But it remains a fact that she took no part in any of the various stagings of the Dream that ran at Covent Garden through the rest of the 60s, and was missing from several others where her presence might have been expected. She wasn’t on the 1966 recording, where the role went to Elizabeth Harwood. When Dream played the 1967 Aldeburgh Festival in Colin Graham’s production, the Tytania was Margaret Price. And when that same production played Sadlers Wells, it was with Jenny Hill – a performance described in the Financial Times as having ‘neither the strangeness [nor] the poetry of Jennifer Vyvyan’.
Perhaps she was, in some way, out of favour through that period – either because Britten thought she wasn’t singing so well (and in the early 1960s she was certainly suffering a bad recurrence of the respiratory problems that plagued her career) or because, as the conductor Steuart Bedford suggests, she had become too closely involved with new operas by Malcolm Williamson. Britten and Williamson did not enjoy enduring mutual respect.
Another possible reason could be that she had, like so many others, caused offence with unguarded remarks: her diaries sometimes include casual (though by no means spiteful) banter about homosexuality that might have been passed on. And yet another is that Britten took a dim view of Vyvyan’s failure to prioritise a 1962 EOG tour to Stockholm of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas which would have cast Vyvyan as Belinda against Janet Baker’s Dido.
Worried (as always) about what he thought of her, Vyvyan wrote at the end of 1961: ‘Dearest Ben – it has made me SO concerned to have had to let you down over Belinda …Pat Terry assures me that you understand and that comforts me a lot. Trying to cancel the engagements in question – or worse, trying to rush me to or from them, would surely make me more trouble than I was worth and a damned nuisance to you all’.
There had been other problems, earlier in 1961, when she felt poorly treated over a recording of Britten’s new Cantata Academica for which she had specially travelled down to London from Manchester, and back again, only to have an all-round bad experience.
Struggling with bronchial trouble, she was seriously unhappy with the takes. And the fee was lousy. Her diary states: ‘Ben’s new Cantata for L’Oiseaux Lyre, for 25gns. No one seemed particularly grateful. Owen [Brannigan], Helen [Watts] and I went & drank gin to cheer ourselves up’. Maybe that was significant.
Britten – Cantata Academica
But she did eventually return to Tytania, booked for Colin Graham’s production of The Dream when it toured widely (Aldeburgh, London, Belgium, San Francisco) from the late 60s onwards. And the catalogue of her Aldeburgh Festival appearances gives no obvious indication of her being (as certain artists were at one time or another) frozen out.
Having played an early part in the 2nd Festival of 1949, her subsequent Aldeburgh engagements ran fairly consistently through 1952, 53, 55, 57, 58, 60, 61, 64, 67, 68, and 69. Many of them were high-profile, ‘classic’ Aldeburgh events like a St John Passion in 1959 with Pears as Evangelist, Julian Bream lute, Britten harpsichord, Imogen Holst conducting; the UK premiere of Poulenc’s Mamelles de Tiresias in 1958; Gluck’s Orfeo in 1964; and the Purcell/Britten Fairy Queen in 1967 and 69 (recorded in 1970 for Decca).
Away from Aldeburgh she participated in the UK premiere of Cantata Academica in 1961, and Britten’s 50th birthday celebration in 1963 – a concert performance of Gloriana at the Festival Hall that took place as the world shuddered to hear that President Kennedy had been assassinated earlier the same day.
And her schedule reveals regular performances of the War Requiem and other Britten repertoire throughout the ’60s – under the composer’s baton as well as those of major-league conductors like Giulini (Les Illuminations in England, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) and Bernstein (Spring Symphony with the New York Philharmonic in the USA: a performance accessible on YouTube:
Her close connection with Spring Symphony was in fact sealed by Britten’s own, authoritative 1960 Decca recording on which she appears as the soprano soloist.
Britten - Spring Symphony
And she would sing Illuminations throughout the world – Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Denmark – as well as in the UK: a noted example at the time being a 1969 radio broadcast with the BBC Northern Symphony under Jascha Horenstein.
Britten – Les Illuminations
There were also performances of the song cycle Our Hunting Fathers in Norway and elsewhere.
Her last known letter to Britten was a particularly warm and touching one, sent at Christmas 1973 when the composer was supposedly recovering from a heart operation. It reads: ‘Dearest Ben – All the time you were ill I never wrote, but it did not mean I had not been thinking about you. The relief and joy it was to know that you were improving all the time, not to mention catching a glimpse of that much-loved head at the dress rehearsal of Death in Venice at CG, can hardly be described. As for that towering work. Thank you. And Peter. Ah!’
Britten, alas, did not recover – but even so, Vyvyan died first. One of the last concerts she sang before her death the following Spring was a War Requiem at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, and the lesson at her memorial service was read by Peter Pears – none of which suggests estrangement. And what’s more, before any of this, there had been one last role for Vyvyan in Britten’s operatic output.
In August 1969 the Dream played Bury St Edmunds, and Vyvyan wrote of the general dress rehearsal: ‘Ben was there..sang dreadfully’. But it can’t have been so very dreadful because a few days later she writes ‘Ben has asked me to take part in his new opera for TV next year’.
It was Owen Wingrave, another ghost opera adapted from Henry James. And the role allotted to Vyvyan was another neurotic one for which she was in some ways curiously well-qualified: the role of Mrs Julian, the dependent hanger-on in a militarily-dominated aristocratic household, which was close to Vyvyan’s own real-life background.
At the same time it was an odd piece of casting in that it made her the mother of Janet Baker (playing Kate Julian) who was only 8 years her junior. And while this might not have mattered so much on the stage of a large opera house, Wingrave was an opera intended for the intimate scrutiny of television – recorded (at the composer’s insistence) on home territory, in a specially constructed set at Snape Maltings.
The recording sessions took place in the autumn of 1970, and Vyvyan’s diary relates that she travelled to Snape on 31 October with her young son Jonathan in the car. On the way there he was sick, twice. And on arrival at Snape to view the set (which recreated a Jacobean mansion complete with haunted room) his presence ‘almost caused strike because of risk to J while they were putting heavy lighting stuff overhead’.
At this point in her career the triple burden of singing engagements, a small child, and a worsening bronchial condition was making itself felt. Between rehearsal sessions at Snape her diary notes that she ‘made nest in false passage to haunted room and tried to sleep. Difficult’.
Immediately after the TV recording, Wingrave was sound-recorded for Decca. The transmission went out the following spring, 16 May 1971. And the production was reworked for the stage at Covent Garden, opening May 1973. But by then Vyvyan’s bronchial problems had increased, to the point where she was admitted to intensive care at the Brompton Hospital and thereafter to a nursing home in Surrey. Left with no choice, she withdrew from the cast, to be replaced by Janice Chapman.