"I hope, old boy, you're not asking us to set a precedent."
Those were the words of a Treasury official that greeted Isador Caplan and myself on one of our early missions to Whitehall to try and ensure that the incomparable legacy of Benjamin Britten's manuscripts should remain at Aldeburgh in toto and not be dismembered and hived off as a result of the exigencies of death duties.
Isador Caplan was a powerful, almost mythically persistent negotiator. He bombarded the Treasury, ministers, under-secretaries and officials alike, with telephone calls and letters, admonitions and exhortations. My role was to provide him with ammunitionto counter their apprehensions that they might actually be seen to be passing a judgment or making an evaluation of an artist's status.
Caplan's radical proposal was that the collection of Britten's manuscripts acquired for the nation after his death in 1976 should remain "on permanent loan" at the Britten-Pears Library, thus allowing scholars, students and lovers of Britten's music access to basic sources in the very environment in which the works had been created.
This remarkable lawyer was not only Britten's principal legal adviser from the 1940s onwards but also had an essential part to play in setting up the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, in the creation of the English Opera Group in 1947 and a new publishing house (Faber Music) in 1965, and the building of the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in 1971. He shared Britten's pacifism and abhorrence of violence, for which reason the composer dedicated his anti-war, anti-military opera Owen Wingrave to Caplan and his wife,Joan, on its publication in 1973.
Caplan's unbounded enthusiasm for Britten's music did not find an outlet only in negotiating tactics with public bodies. He was also the personal medium embodying the message on every possible and sometimes improbable occasion. When he and his wife went off on a trip to China, he was accompanied by bags bulging with Britten literature, scores and gramophone records. The astonished Chinese and their libraries were deluged with information and Caplanesque enthusiasm.
Britten invited Caplan to be one of the four executors to see to his affairs after his death - with Peter Pears, Leslie Periton (Britten's accountant) and myself. Nineteen years on, only one now remains.
Isador Caplan was the son of a rabbi and, though he could scarcely be described as Jewish in any orthodox respect, his formidable, analytic intellect, his generous warmth, the impregnability of his principles and his sometimes sardonic humour surely reflect something of his distinguished origins.
From his early years - he was educated at Blackpool Grammar School and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge - he was a passionate democratic socialist and unyielding campaigner for social justice. I recall the speech made by a former Lord Chancellor, Gerald Gardiner, on Caplan's retirement in 1980 from the firm, Forsyte Kerman, to which he had been articled in 1932 and of which he was to become a prominent senior partner. All of us present were left in no doubt of the importance and influence of Caplan's work for the Haldane Society, an association of left-wing lawyers, of which he was secretary. In the wake of the divisions that later assailed Haldane, he became founder secretary of the Society of Labour Lawyers, another influential pressure group but one p ursuing more moderate aims.
Caplan was a lifelong member of the Labour Party, and continued to ponder on the obligations and commitments implied by membership, to the end of his life. It was somehow typical of him that when visited only a few days before his death he was holding forth, with all his customary fire and eloquence and despite onerous disabilities, on the topic of Clause 4 and the demerits of tampering with it. His indignation was stimulated by his anxiety about the fate of the National Health Service, for th e establishment of which he had fought in 1945; it gave him real satisfaction to know that he himself had been cared for under the NHS and, as one of his family remarked, he would have been "relieved to know that he died in an NHS hospital".
His sense of a compassionate and just society was a permanent part of the complex texture of his own long life, and found constant expression in diverse ways. But his friends vividly remember his active membership of CND - he was rarely seen without its badge in his buttonhole; his concern for global conservation; his vigorous protection of Richmond's landscape and amenities, among which he had lived for 50 years; and his moral support for the miners' strike in 1984, when he entertained delegates from the coalfields as a gesture of solidarity.
One of the great joys of Isador Caplan's life was his family. It was a dreadful blow that Joan, herself a remarkable woman, suffered during his own last years a progressive mental deterioration that has left her in an impenetrable world of her own. Through her long illness Isador showed qualities of love, patience, compassion and tenderness that were well-nigh saintly. At the centre of that craggy, sometimes intimidating, sometimes relentless, sometimes abrasively obsessive personality, there beat a great heart. It is difficult to believe that it is now stilled.Reuse content