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Great Britten: A timeless master of melody

As his centenary year reaches a climax, Claudia Pritchard hails the composer

At the Royal Festival Hall the other day, the man in the next seat, excited at picking up a last-minute ticket for the all-Britten programme conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, told me about his occasional trips to Britten’s home town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

On one visit, he strolled up to The Red House, the composer’s home from 1957 until his death in 1976, and scene of many great meetings of minds. The housekeeper came out to say hello, asked him if he wanted to look inside, and made him tea.

Another year, the music-lover walked a friend to the house, and the same thing happened. He could recall in detail the interior of the house, including the pictures by John Piper, the artist who collaborated with Britten as set designer in a golden era for British art, music and public patronage. In June, the Red House was opened to all, and it now houses, too, the Britten-Pears Archive, in a £4.7m extension. But the affectionate reminiscence of this concert-goer was touching for the way in which it considered the composer as a friend never met, a fixed point in his cultural landscape.

Like any artist worth his salt, Britten attracted criticism during his lifetime and after for being both too radical – his decades-long absence from Glyndebourne was attributed to artistic differences and “lifestyle choices” (a thinly coded reference to his relationship with the tenor Peter Pears) – and too establishment – rubbing shoulders with the royal family. He was also condemned for decamping to the US in 1939 as war looked imminent, and his attraction to boys has caught the attention of both the concerned and the prurient, although many have jumped to his defence, including the actor David Hemmings, who worked with him as a child. Hemmings later said: “In all of the time that I spent with him he never abused that trust.” But the centenary of the birth of Britten on 22 November has prompted a year of unrivalled music-making, because Britten’s artistic legacy is immense.

Like my concert-hall neighbour, I have a personal store of Britten memories, and he is similarly in the lives of countless others, for each in different ways. My top moments include singing in Noye’s Fludde as a schoolgirl, weak with laughter during rehearsals in Hereford Cathedral, and brimming tears at the magic of Peter Hall’s 1981 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sprites sprinkling fairy dust over Britten’s entrancing orchestration. I took a friend who knew nothing of the counter-tenor voice to a later production and watched her astonishment at Oberon’s high-wheeling, otherworldly entry: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…”

The cheeky Cabaret Songs recorded by Sarah Walker and Roger Vignoles; the terrifying Turn of the Screw at English National Opera in 2009; Glyndebourne’s 2010 Billy Budd, revived this year with a matchless cast; the semi-staged production earlier this month, also at the Royal Festival Hall, of Peter Grimes … the wonders unfold constantly. And Britten as a catalyst for others has inspired not only musicians, as at the ongoing Aldeburgh Festival founded with Pears, but artists in other mediums, such as Maggie Hambling, with her stupendous Aldeburgh beach memorial shell.

But while it is easy for those whose lifetimes overlapped with his to connect with Britten, does he speak to a younger generation? On 22 November, an impressive 100,000 children across the country will raise their voices at the same time in the Britten song cycle Friday Afternoons, an Aldeburgh Music project. It was my 29-year-old rock musician son who introduced me to Jeff Buckley singing Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is now available as an app.

The contralto in the title role of Glyndebourne’s new production of The Rape of Lucretia, Claudia Huckle, was, at 31, born seven years after Britten’s death. The early chamber opera, opening at Glyndebourne this weekend for a two-week run before its nationwide tour has a classical setting, but Huckle is amazed by the piece’s modernity: “Lucretia may have died in 510 BC, but to me she feels like a very real woman. She is the victim of a rape from which she is unable to recover. She suffers feelings of guilt, which are apparently common in rape victims. There are some beautifully tender moments between her and her husband at the end, but she cannot get over this guilt, and she resolves to kill herself....”

For me, Britten shares with artists as diverse as Handel and Shakespeare, Mozart and Dickens, Verdi and Austen, the great artist’s ability to encapsulate experiences and articulate emotions they may not have known personally. The preparation for battle and crestfallen standing-down in Billy Budd, for example, must be one of the most powerful depictions in all art of human intention and endeavour thwarted, while the reconciliation of Oberon and Titania is breathtaking in its depiction of anger refettled as love.

So, for his startling breadth, for comedy in unlikely places, for melodies that make time stand still and an orchestral palette that invents whole new colours, here’s to Benjamin Britten, and his next 100 years.

For further information about Britten’s centenary celebrations, see britten100.org; ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ is at Glyndebourne, East Sussex (glyndebourne.com) and on tour until 6 December