Obituary: Bill Servaes

Elizabeth Forbes
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:42

FOR NEARLY 10 years Bill Servaes was general manager of the Aldeburgh Festival. When Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears interviewed him for the job, he confessed he was more used to running ships than music festivals but, as it turned out, he was particularly well suited to this new venture in his career. The years from 1971, when Servaes took up the position, to 1976, when Britten died, were among the most fruitful in the somewhat chequered history of the festival.

William Servaes, the son of a naval officer, and himself destined for the Navy, was educated at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth. Aged 18 when the Second World War broke out, he served mainly in destroyers in the Atlantic, with an excursion into the Mediterranean for the Allied landings in Sicily. After the war, invalided out of the Navy and newly married, he had no employment and no home. After a temporary job, he went to work for a shipping company, the Orient Line, and set up house in Guildford. When the Orient Line merged with P&O he ran the business side of a firm of architects. In 1967, growing tired of commuting to London, he moved with his wife and family to Suffolk.

They found a house in Orford, not far from Aldeburgh, where Pat had lived as a child - in the Red House, where Britten himself now lived. They attended operas and concerts during the annual summer festival, but merely as members of the public. In 1971 there was a crisis in the festival management, and the general manager resigned. Colin Graham, the artistic director of the English Opera Group, and director of many first performances of Britten's operas at Aldeburgh, asked Servaes if he would like to be the new manager. Despite initial fears concerning his lack of musical knowledge, Servaes was an immediate success, with the artistic management, with the public and with the press.

By this time the festival, founded in 1948 by Britten, the tenor Peter Pears and the librettist Eric Crozier, had become almost a private club. First-time visitors were made to feel unwelcome by those who had attended every festival since the beginning (I know, it happened to me). Servaes changed all that, welcoming new visitors without upsetting the old guard. He got on particularly well with Britten and with most, if not quite all, of his co-directors; and he was adored by members of the press, whom he treated as human beings and entertained to splendid repasts at his house in Orford - he was a passionate and inspired cook.

This improvement in public relations was not achieved at the expense of artistic standards; on the contrary, the festivals of the early 1970s saw the introduction of several interesting new works by young composers, including Gordon Crosse's The Wheel of the World, an "entertainment" for young people adapted from three of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and John Gardner's The Visitors, both in 1972. Thea Musgrave's The Voice of Ariadne scored a great success in 1974. Above all, there was the final flowering of Britten's own operatic genius: Death in Venice, which had its premiere at Snape Maltings, the concert hall-cum-opera house a few miles from Aldeburgh, in 1973.

Britten had always loved Venice, and in autumn 1975 he expressed his sorrow at the thought of never visiting the city again. Servaes responded by taking the composer and his entourage there in November. In Venice Britten finished his third string quartet, which was performed by the Amadeus Quartet at Snape in December. His early operetta Paul Bunyan, dating from 1941, which was played on BBC Radio in February 1976, was given its British stage premiere at the 1976 festival, when one of his very last works, the solo cantata Phaedra, a setting of Racine, was performed by Janet Baker.

Britten died in December 1976, and the Aldeburgh Festival was never quite the same again. The Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich became one of the artistic directors, and in 1979 conducted a fine production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Bill Servaes, rising 60, decided that he had done his best for the festival and resigned in 1980.

As four of his five children were now grown up, he moved from Orford to a smaller house in Southwold, and spent much of the time in the Algarve. His final years were passed in London, where, in spite of the cancer from which he later died, he continued to live life to the full, to visit the opera, the theatre and the ballet - and to cook, for his large family and his many friends.

Elizabeth Forbes

William Servaes, naval officer and arts administrator: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 30 June 1921; general manager, Aldeburgh Festival 1971-1980; married 1945 Patricia Vestey (three sons, two daughters); died London 28 January 1999.

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