Sir Jeffrey Tate: How Britten changed my life

Sir Jeffrey Tate: How Britten changed my life


norman lebrecht

June 04, 2017

We have been sent video of a public rehearsal by the English conductor in Hamburg last year.

The work he performs is one of great personal significance, Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Time There Was’, a suite on English folk tunes that Britten wrote in the aftermath of his debilitating heart surgery in 1973.

Jeffrey introduces the work (at 4:30) with characteristic wit and warmth and a great deal of personal investment. Clearly, the Hamburg Symphony players loved every minute of their work with him.

Jeffrey wrote an article in German on How Britten Changed My Life and released this picture of himself (2nd right), aged ten, when the great composer came to visit his school orchestra.

Sir Jeffrey Tate died on Friday, aged 74.


  • Delphine1962 says:

    Hello Norman, I had a free afternoon, so here is my translation of the interview/reminisence from the Hamburger Abendblatt which you posted above. I am drying my eyes as I type it, as I absolutely adored Jeffrey Tate, as well as Aldeburgh and those heady days, of which I some of my own wonderful memories:

    “In 1954 I left the grammar school in Farnham, a small town in which I grew up, which is about 60 kilometres away from London. Our music teacher seemed to me to be very old, but actually he was relatively young; his name was Alan Fluck. Later on, he became one of the most important figures of the British section of the Jeunesses Musicales. I no longer know how it came about, but Fluck knew Benjamin Britten – that might have been because Peter Pears was born in Farnham.
    We had wonderful musical lessons with Fluck; even by the age of 11, he had introduced us to music by Britten, Shostakovich and Bernstein, and I remember especially the Five Orchestral Pieces by Schoenberg. He was also very practically engaged. Together with the music teachers from two other schools, Fluck organised a combined orchestra. In my first year at school, there was a production of Britten’s St Nicholas Cantata, which Britten had written for Lancing College, which was the school Peter Pears had attended.
    It is a wonderful work – almost completely unknown in Germany – and it tells the story of St. Nicholas of Smyrna, who was Bishop of Anatolia during a period of famine. In the seventh section of the work, Bishop Nicholas is offered something to eat, but recognises that the pastries given to him contain the flesh of slaughtered children and he calls upon these children to come back to life! At the end of this section the children enter from the rear of the church singing a Hallelujah. That was my first major solo – I was one of the three children and we performed it in the church near our school. I had auditioned for the role of young St Nicholas, but I didn’t get the part.
    Britten attended the performance. I remember that his name was familiar to me – it had been since the age of about 8 or 9 – but I didn’t know his music. The school choir managed to sing it – it isn’t difficult, as Britten had written it for amateurs to be able to manage. Britten was always immensely practical and aware of how to write well for musicians. He sat in the first row, which made us break out in a cold sweat, and Pears was sitting in the pulpit. There was an awful moment during the second solo, when the strings came apart. Pears leaned forward in the pulpit and said very quietly – but within Britten’ hearing – “Mr Fluck, I think it would be a good idea if we tried that again from the beginning”!
    Apart from that, it was a great experience for us. Afterwards there was a reception and someone took a picture of us boys together with Britten and Pears. I have a framed copy at home in London. Of the impression Britten made upon me on that occasion, I can only remember that he was very nice to us, but nothing more from that first contact. However, from then on I made very attempt to get to know his music. At that time in England, Britten enjoyed big status – everyone waited eagerly for new works, there was always excitement. I listened to the radio and bought as many records as I could afford, as I had received a generous scholarship to study medicine at Cambridge I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to study, as my parents had no money.
    I was in my first student digs when in 1962 when I heard the radio broadcast of the premiere of the “War Requiem” from Coventry Cathedral; it was a dreary room over a bus station. A year later, we performed the work at the Cambridge University Music Society. In the meantime, I’d found a much nicer room, but that winter it was so cold that the gas froze – it was coal gas, and it contains water. In the Christmas holidays I attended a performance of the Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall, with Britten conducting, and that was unforgettable.
    In the meantime, I became mildly obsessed with Britten’s music and in 1961, ‘62 and ’63, I went to the Festival at Aldeburgh, which lies on the Suffolk coast and which Britten and Pears had set up in 1948 – and which was also their home. In 1961, Britten invited the Cambridge Music Society to open the Festival with the “Cantata Academica”, which is a very entertaining work. I found out that there were scholarships offered by a trust set up by the Prince and Princess of Hessen – Margaret von Hessen was English. You could get free seats for many concerts, or at least very cheap ones, if you were prepared to move a few chairs, tear up tickets and sell progammes. I did that for two years and in return I listened to some of the most unbelievable concerts: Lieder with Britten and Pears; Piano duos with Britten and Sviatoslav Richter; Richter with Fischer-Dieskau in the “Schönen Magelone” by Brahms; Lutoslawski’s “Paroles tissées”… Britten made a huge impression on me as a pianist. He wasn’t a virtuoso, but he played with such profound musicality and with an extraordinary sense of pianistic colour and tone.
    At the end of the Festival there was a cocktail party for the students at Britten’s house. At the party, I told him that he had dominated my musical existence for the past ten years. He remembered Farnham, which was very nice of him; ah well, I was only 21 and quite good-looking, so that might have helped! He was very open and friendly and we chatted about Brahms, whose music he cordially hated. He talked about an opera that he wanted to compose, based on “Anna Karenina” for Galina Vischnevskaja, Rostropovitch’s wife. To my knowledge, he never wrote down a note of that. He also talked about plans for “King Lear”.

    Back then, he was very energetic and vital, almost extravagantly so; his illness set in later and you can hear it in his music. His last opera. “Death in Venice”, is very beautiful, but strangely static, and doesn’t compare with the rhythmic intensity of his best work. He aged very suddently, and if you look a the last photographs of him he doesn’t look anything like a man only in his early 60s. The last time I spoke to him was in 1964, when we sang the Spring Sympny with him and the Philharmonic Chorus. He was also very accessible on that occasion . Others have described him as a very difficult person, and suffered a lot under him. I believe, fundamentally, he was himself a deeply insecure person.

    The “Nocturne”, which we perform on Sunday, is one of my absolute favorite pieces of his.”

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Thank you!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Thank you for spending time & effort on this very interesting article. Britten’s insecurity must have been due – at least to a great extent – to his awkward relationship with the upcoming trend of modernism which countered everything he stood for and threatened to reduce his life work to a mere footnote to the utopian narrative of musical progress. Meanwhile, B’s work has only grown in stature and recognition and has entered the regular repertoire of the central performance culture. He had not needed to worry at all.

  • Colin says:

    Delphine, thank you. A true labour of love, and very much appreciated. Thank you again and again for your generosity and your kindness in making the interview available for us.

  • Jeffrey says:

    I add my thanks to you, Delphine, for sharing so eloquently your personal memories.

  • Steve P says:

    Very moving. I can sense a Britten immersion coming very soon in my listening future…

  • john tranter BASS says: