Obituary: Eric Crozier (CORRECTED)

John Calder
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:51


Eric John Crozier, writer, librettist, producer: born London 14 November 1914; co-founder, English Opera Group 1947, Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts 1948; married Margaret Johns (marriage dissolved), 1949 Nancy Evans; died 7 September 1994.

ERIC CROZIER's reputation will always be associated with that of Benjamin Britten, whose early career he did much to help, but he was a man of wide interests and culture who had little to do with the composer after 1952, when there was a falling out.

Crozier was the first producer of Peter Grimes, the composer's best-known and probably most important opera, in 1945 at Sadler's Wells Theatre, an event which heralded a renaissance of English music that led to Britain becoming a leading musical nation again, the first time since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. There were many difficulties over the staging of that work: many of the singers did not like the novelty of the music and there were objections to Britten's pacificism and to his having spent the war, which had just ended, in America. Eric Crozier fiercely defended the opera and, once it had been premiered on 7 June to more acclaim from the public than support from the management, he resigned from the company. He then, together with Britten and John Piper, the painter and stage designer, founded the English Opera Group, to mount new works by English composers and to revive forgotten English classics.

Crozier had previously worked with Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, which because of the Blitz was transferred for a while to Burnley, producing plays, and he then went on to opera, his first production being a highly successful Bartered Bride at Sadler's Wells in 1943. His loyalty to Britten led to his writing the libretto for Albert Herring, based on a Maupassant short story which he adapted to Suffolk, which was given at Glyndebourne in 1947, the second Britten opera to be mounted there. But John Christie, in his crusty way, disapproved of it, his antagonism to the composer reinforced when he wandered into the bedroom that Britten shared with Peter Pears at an inopportune moment. No other Britten work was given there during Christie's lifetime.

Eric Crozier was co-founder of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, and his next Britten collaboration, Let's Make an Opera, written for performance by children, with The Little Sweep, an opera within an opera at the core of it, he staged there the following year. He was then asked to work with EM Forster on the libretto of Britten's next work, Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville's novel, the first Britten opera to be accepted by Covent Garden and given there in 1951.

The cooling of his relations with Britten started at this time and the exact reasons for it are not known. A satirical charade that he organised at a private party, showing the characters of Albert Herring in later life all having turned to crime, was probably part of it, but he also apparently objected to something Britten had written in a letter to the BBC. Crozier had a quick temper at times and did not easily forgive a slight.

He continued to write opera texts for other composers, including Ruth for Lennox Berkeley in 1956. He both directed and translated operas from the standard repertory, mainly in collaboration with Joan Cross, a leading soprano at Sadler's Wells, and with the English Opera Group, for whom Britten wrote many of his principal female roles: these translations included The Bartered Bride, Otello, Falstaff, La Traviata, Idomoneo, Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten. But he also quarrelled with Joan Cross over a racist remark to which he took exception.

He was very active with the English Opera Group during its most creative period, introducing new works to new audiences, and at Aldeburgh, which became England's elitist musical centre, mainly dedicated to maintaining Britten's vision of musical excellence during years of considerable difficulty. The Aldeburgh golfing and yachting communities did not take to highbrow music and the town is only accessible by long and narrow roads, and building audiences was not easy. In Aldeburgh Britten and Pears prepared and perfected their interpretations of Schubert, Berg and other composers they admired, while slowly developing a following for Britten's own work. The difficulties included the humiliating failure of Gloriana, written for the Queen's coronation in 1953, but liked only by a few critics and a small part of the musical public. The portrayal of the first Queen Elizabeth as a raddled old harridan showed a lack of tact and worldly wisdom on Britten's part, but he was by then cushioned against criticism by his own coterie of admirers; Aldeburgh until some time after Britten's death remained the preserve of a small, rather precious, but genuinely musical sub-culture. It is more eclectic today.

In recent years Crozier gave lectures and helped students at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies at the Maltings at Snape, where his second wife, the singer Nancy Evans, who had sung many Britten roles, became head of voice studies. Both were appointed OBE in 1991, a year after Evans's retirement from the school, and they had lived nearby at Great Glemham in retirement ever since.

Eric Crozier was born and educated in London, caught the theatre-bug early and attended University College School and RADA before going to Paris to study under a scholarship at the British Institute, where he trained himself for his subsequent career, joining Jacques Copeau's La Compagnie des Quinze, which gave him experience of poetic and experimental drama, which, allied to Crozier's early love of Chekhov and other naturalist dramatists, enabled him to bring a roundness and element of mystery to his theatrical productions after he returned to Britain.

These were not well matched to the prevailing London scene in the Thirties, which was dominated by the comedies of Coward, Rattigan and Maugham and the didactic theatre of Shaw, and it had become both predictable and a little stale. Crozier was part of the avant-garde scene and might have developed like Peter Brook, whose career began a decade later, if the climate had been right. Instead he moved to opera, but also became one of the first play producers for BBC television. His attachment to Britten and Aldeburgh undoubtedly limited his scope and he never developed a European reputation or, unlike so many of his contemporaries, worked in the United States.

As a man Eric Crozier was a perfectionist, both professionally and in his personal relationships. He expected others to be as punctilious as himself in commitment, correspondence and reliability, and he did not like it if he was taken for granted or undervalued. He was loyal, affable, and a conversationalist whose wide reading in many languages, deep culture and search for wisdom impressed every one he knew. But he would take umbrage where his generosity and friendship was not returned in a similar spirit.

For many years he kept a notebook of jottings and quotations that he had found interesting, ranging from Eastern philosophy to modern poetry. He made three copies of this for close friends, the third of whom published it privately as Eric Crozier's Bedside Book. He included some of his own poems and there are statements of his own philosophy in the volume, in which he declares that what attracted him to people and to art was an 'inherent grace', difficult to define. He was an elitist by nature with little time for those with lower intellectual and personal standards. His Bedside Book starts with a quatrain:

Heart, feel] Tongue, speak] Pen,

Write down all I long to say . . .

Gratitude for all my years of life,

Thanks to those who helped me on my way.

Eric Crozier was twice married, the first time to Margaret Johns, the second to Nancy Evans with whom he had two sons. He was in poor health in his last years and was little seen outside Suffolk.


Eric Crozier (obituary, 8 September) had no sons, but he had two daughters, by his first wife, Margaret. We apologise to the family for any distress this error caused.

(Photograph omitted)

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