How Elwes met Britten: ‘I was a bit of a thug, but I could sing’
The tenor John Elwes met Benjamin Britten as a young chorister at Westminster Cathedral, the two sharing a penchant for schoolboy humour
Benjamin Britten and John Elwes in Kingsway Hall, London, in 1961
The singer was born John Hahessy in London, “rock-bottom working-class” as he puts it, the eighth child of an Irish labourer from Tipperary and a British mother. His parents couldn’t look after him, and he was placed in care, ending up for a while at Tapeley Park in Devon. It was owned by the Christie family, who started the Glyndebourne Festival on their more famous property near Lewes in Sussex.
John Christie, who founded the festival, was married to the soprano Audrey Mildmay, and on a visit to Tapeley after the war, when the house was given over to “war babies” and abandoned children, she met the five-year-old boy, heard him sing, and wrote to London County Council, in whose care he was, to suggest they send him to a choir school one day.
Three years later the suggestion was acted on, and he joined the choir of Westminster Cathedral. If his father hadn’t been Irish, he says, he would probably have been sent to St Paul’s. At Westminster, he worked under the tutelage of George Malcolm, who was cultivating a choral sound that was raw and penetrating compared with what Elwes calls “the more angelic choir-boy sound of the Anglican tradition”.
The rough over the smooth
Malcolm “looked for the roughs and the toughs in the playground, and I was certainly one of those”, says Elwes. “I was a southeast London boy, Cockney-speaking then. I was a bit of a thug, but I could sing. His object was to produce singers, not choristers.”
Malcolm wanted his friend, the composer Benjamin Britten, to come and hear the choir before he left Westminster to pursue a career that would make him Britain’s best-known harpsichordist.
The composer, says Elwes, “rather liked the sound that George liked. Whereas the Anglican choirs tend to iron out the roughness of boys and make them into angels, George took this and harnessed it and trained it. I think this is the kind of sound that Ben Britten liked – the ruggedness of children. Boys are noisy creatures.”
In January 1959 Britten came to Westminster to hear the boys, who normally only sang in Latin, perform his Ceremony of Carols. “This was the first time Ben heard me sing, and I was still a boy soprano, then, just over 12 years old. The first time I really remember actually looking directly into his face was to do with his writing the Missa Brevis specifically for the Westminster Choir.”
He laughs as he recalls the story that when Britten sent the Mass to his publishers, he had written in brackets after the title, Mass in short trousers. “Typical Ben Britten. Schoolboy humour.”