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

Benjamin Britten and John Elwes in Kingsway Hall, London, in 1961

 

Tenor John Elwes starts a new Music Network tour on Sunday, Benjamin Britten as I Knew Him, a story that concentrates on a few years when Elwes was a chorister at Westminster Cathedral.

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.”

There was a visit to the composer’s second house in London, “and I recall seeing the manuscript on the piano, still in pencil, of the Benedictus. That was the first time I really met Ben Britten. I was head chorister, and I was asked with another boy to go and sing in Purcell’s ode, Hail, bright Cecilia, with Britten conducting at the Royal Festival Hall. I was asked to sing one of the arias, Thou tun’st this World.”


Schoolboy humour
There were famous soloists involved, and “I remember giggling with Ben, not out of disrespect, but because he understood boy humour – there was the counter-tenor Alfred Deller, who started singing with a female voice and he had a beard. It was a giggling point for us.”

Then came the premiere of the Missa Brevis in July 1959, recorded live, and newly available on CD. Britten told George Malcolm that his choir was “staggering” and the boys were “incredible”.

The next meetings between young singer and composer were at the summer school in Dartington, where the choir sang A Boy was Born, and in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas for the BBC, a recording that’s also been issued on CD.

“He was getting to know my voice and others in the choir, and I think he was getting to recognise that we were singers. That meant that we could sing secular music. We weren’t angelic choirboys, though we were controlled by a very strict musical discipline. Children like that. If discipline is dished out and balanced with praise, they’ll do anything.”

The climax of the association came in a Wigmore Hall concert and subsequent recording of the canticle Abraham and Isaac, with Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. The work was written for the great contralto Kathleen Ferrier, and Elwes says his voice had already begun to deepen so that, like Ferrier, there was a particular tension in his high notes, something that Britten wanted. His reward for the concert was “a book, and a wrist watch from Ben with a signed copy of the score”.

They also recorded some songs from Friday Afternoons, The Birds (written at age 15), and the Corpus Christi Carol from A Boy Was Born, arranged on the spot in the studio and later published with the dedication “for John Hahessy”. It was the end of “my two-year, intensive career” with the man who once said, “You’re not my godson, but I consider you as my godson.”


John Elwes’s programme of music and memories, Benjamin Britten as I Knew Him with Brian O’Kane (cello) and Finghin Collins (piano) is in Dundalk, Dublin, Wexford and Kilkenny from Sunday. 01-4750224

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