Brit­ten’s Death in Venice

Con­duc­tor Steuart Bed­ford talks to Christo­pher Gil­lett about work­ing with Ben­jamin Brit­ten, and the re­spon­si­bil­ity of over­see­ing the com­poser’s fi­nal mas­ter­piece, his opera Death in Venice

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents -

Con­duc­tor Steuart Bed­ford tells Christo­pher Gil­lett about work­ing with Brit­ten on his fi­nal mas­ter­piece

Venice, Feb­ru­ary 1949. On hol­i­day with Ben­jamin Brit­ten, Peter Pears sent a post­card to their close friend, the so­prano Les­ley Duff: ‘Dear­est Les­ley, the beauty of this place is past de­scrip­tion, and though it has now been cold and the wind blows, it has been a won­der­ful 10 days – a very nice ho­tel with rooms over­look­ing the la­goon and the Doge’s Palace, won­der­ful pic­tures, the sun shin­ing all the time, cof­fee by St Mark’s in the open, ex­cur­sions by land and sea, church af­ter church, and all without traf­fic – not a car – not a horse – not a sound – heav­enly… Much love to all, Peter.’

Les­ley Duff was mar­ried to an en­gi­neer,

Leslie Bed­ford, and what no one in­volved in the cor­re­spon­dence could have pos­si­bly imag­ined at the time was that 24 years later, one of their three sons, the nine-year-old Steuart, would be­come the man that Brit­ten chose to con­duct and record his last opera, Death in Venice. Shortly af­ter its pre­miere in 1973, Pears and Steuart Bed­ford

would also drink cof­fee out­doors in St Mark’s Square, when they took the opera to La Fenice.

Now 78 and re­tired from the podium by Parkin­son’s dis­ease, Bed­ford is puz­zling over the whole thing. ‘It’s a ques­tion I of­ten ask my­self. Of all the peo­ple he could have cho­sen, why me?’ In a busi­ness which favours the ego­tis­ti­cal, fa­mous and flashy, it’s some­thing that a self-ef­fac­ing, mod­est man like Bed­ford might well ask.

Brit­ten, Pears and Les­ley Duff had be­come close dur­ing the early days of the English Opera Group when she sang in the first per­for­mances of The Rape of Lu­cre­tia, Al­bert Her­ring and Brit­ten’s ver­sion of The Beg­gar’s Opera. In 1948 Duff and her hus­band bought a hol­i­day cot­tage in Snape and the Bed­ford boys would be­come fre­quent guests at Brit­ten’s home, Crag ★ouse, on Alde­burgh Beach. ‘Ben was won­der­fully happy in the com­pany of young peo­ple,’ Bed­ford re­calls. ‘There was noth­ing sin­is­ter about this at all. There was al­ways some­thing go­ing on, a jig­saw on the pi­ano, a bit of ta­ble ten­nis, al­ways some­thing. We were very at­tracted to him, par­tic­u­larly when he started play­ing the pi­ano.’ Brit­ten, an ex­tra­or­di­nary cor­re­spon­dent who of­ten wrote dozens of let­ters and post­cards a day, would fre­quently write to the Bed­fords, both young and old, or send the boys scores of his mu­sic. Young Steuart re­ceived copies of Brit­ten’s Di­ver­sions and Pi­ano Con­certo while con­va­lesc­ing from a bout of dysen­tery. One of Bed­ford’s early mem­o­ries is of ly­ing in his sickbed, lis­ten­ing to the first broad­cast of The Turn of the Screw from Venice.

Then in the 1950s Les­ley Duff was deemed to be too old for her roles with the English Opera Group and was sud­denly an out­cast – a crush­ing blow for her. The Snape cot­tage was sold.

Af­ter leav­ing school, Steuart Bed­ford seemed des­tined for a ca­reer as a cathe­dral or­gan­ist. But

‘‘ Brit­ten used to say ‘I don’t want any­body to in­ter­pret my mu­sic – I just want them to do what’s there’ ’’

in 1964 he con­ducted his first opera, Brit­ten’s Al­bert Her­ring for the Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity

Opera Club, and he was hooked. ★e joined the mu­sic staff at Glyn­de­bourne, and in 1966 was of­fered a job with the English Opera Group. ★e was sud­denly back on his mother’s old turf. ‘Ob­vi­ously Ben had been keep­ing a care­ful watch on me as a pos­si­bil­ity for the com­pany. But I have never re­ally known how much.’

Brit­ten asked him to as­sist on the record­ing of his A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream and he was given The Beg­gar’s Opera to con­duct, even though he had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence and no one in the English Opera Group had seen him con­duct any­thing.

Per­haps Brit­ten recog­nised some­thing of his own ap­proach to con­duct­ing in his pro­tégé, which Bed­ford de­scribes: ‘There was never any ego­tis­ti­cal non­sense that you so fre­quently get from con­duc­tors, in or­der to show them­selves off in the right sort of shirt, the right sort of ges­ture, or re­hears­ing their ges­tures in front of a mir­ror or some­thing ridicu­lous. Ev­ery­thing was en­tirely mu­sic-ori­en­tated. Ben used to say “I don’t want any­body to in­ter­pret my mu­sic – I just want them to do what’s there”. I think it’s

very pos­si­ble I had an in­nate idea of what he was try­ing to do, from grow­ing up with his mu­sic. It seemed very nat­u­ral to me.’

Bed­ford’s as­cent was rapid. ★e was given more and more work by Brit­ten, not be­cause he was am­bi­tious to rise but be­cause he was ex­actly what Brit­ten was look­ing for. ★e as­sisted on The Rape of Lu­cre­tia, but his mother, the orig­i­nal Lu­cia, was never men­tioned. ‘It never came up. No­body knew.’

When it came to Bed­ford’s con­duct­ing, ‘Ben was al­ways very gen­er­ous. If you said to him “look, I’m do­ing your piece, have you got any time to go through it?” he would al­ways try to make it pos­si­ble. The pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ship worked rather well.’

But Bed­ford wor­ried about his mother and ‘what she must have felt when I joined the English Opera Group. She must have suf­fered a lot over that, par­tic­u­larly as I got closer and closer. She must have thought I was go­ing to be burned alive. Cer­tainly peo­ple were. But I never felt, even if I re­ally mucked it up, that he was any­thing other than very con­sid­er­ate and help­ful.’ Still, Bed­ford had learned from her ex­pe­ri­ence that it was a good idea to keep a dis­tance so­cially, ‘to know when to turn down an in­vi­ta­tion to lunch at the Red ★ouse.’

By 1972, Brit­ten’s heart was fail­ing. ★e needed ma­jor surgery and was strug­gling to fin­ish Death in Venice. Bed­ford can­not re­mem­ber ex­actly when and where he was of­fered the job, but just 32 years old, with no great rep­u­ta­tion be­hind him, he found him­self tasked with pre­par­ing and con­duct­ing the new­est ma­jor work by one of the 20th cen­tury’s great­est com­posers. ‘Ben said he was plan­ning to take over per­for­mances later on. ★e wanted to take a back seat, to watch what was go­ing on, to ad­vise, to cor­rect any­thing that was wrong, without hav­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of con­duct­ing the per­for­mances.’ But Brit­ten never con­ducted again.

In Septem­ber 1972 Brit­ten wrote to the coun­tertenor James Bow­man, ask­ing him to sing the Voice of Apollo in Death in Venice

– ‘my favourite of my op­eras (so far!)’ In his let­ter Brit­ten didn’t men­tion who would be

At just 32, Steuart Bed­ford found him­self con­duct­ing Brit­ten’s new­est ma­jor work

con­duct­ing. Bow­man him­self hadn’t given it much thought. ‘I wasn’t sur­prised when it turned out to be Steuart be­cause I knew Ben im­plic­itly trusted him enor­mously. ★e’s a won­der­ful mu­si­cian and was the ob­vi­ous per­son to do it. I don’t think any­one else was in the frame. Charles Mack­er­ras pos­si­bly? I don’t know. Steuart de­served to do it; he was the heir-ap­par­ent.’

★ow­ever, no one was pre­pared for how ab­sent Brit­ten would be from the process of mount­ing the opera. ‘Ben didn’t have much of a hand in it at all,’ says Bow­man. ‘It’s all a myth that Steuart would go and see Ben ev­ery evening. ★e hardly ever saw him.’ That myth may have sprung from an ar­ti­cle in The Times, timed to co­in­cide with the pre­miere in June 1973, in which Bed­ford was quoted as say­ing ‘we’ve been right through the score and talked a great deal about it’. Bed­ford de­nies it, ‘sim­ply be­cause it wasn’t true!’

In early 1973 Brit­ten played through the score to a small group, singing all the roles. Bed­ford par­tic­u­larly re­mem­bers the se­cond of two ses­sions. ‘★e was very tired, he didn’t want to do it. Those oc­ca­sions were re­ally tense, par­tic­u­larly when Ben was play­ing his mu­sic for the first time. ★e was do­ing the very end, the dance with the very high per­cus­sion, and I was turn­ing pages and I thought “shall I put the tuba in and help him out a bit?” and then I thought “no, I’ll get it wrong” and I froze. And he man­aged just fine. We got to the end and he said “I play it very badly” and rushed to the drinks cab­i­net.’

Be­fore the pre­miere, Bed­ford saw Brit­ten just twice more. ‘I vis­ited him once, when he said he was “be­ing fat­tened for the kill” in the Lon­don Clinic in prepa­ra­tion for his op­er­a­tion. We went over var­i­ous things and that was the last I re­ally saw of him un­til af­ter the pre­miere. There was one bed­side con­sul­ta­tion in The Red ★ouse dur­ing the re­hearsal pe­riod, about a cut that Colin Gra­ham (the di­rec­tor) wanted to do, but that was the only time he had any in­put into the stag­ing or the mu­si­cal side of the per­for­mance.’

Peter Pears was singing Aschen­bach. It would be his last ma­jor role and a mam­moth un­der­tak­ing; Aschen­bach never leaves the stage. James Bow­man re­calls that ‘Peter knew Ben was dy­ing. It was ob­vi­ous. The whole thing was tinged with sad­ness. It was the mu­sic, it was Venice, it was the whole story, every­body knew it was the end of the road.’

But Bed­ford’s rec­ol­lec­tion is dif­fer­ent.

‘When Ben went in for surgery, Pears came into re­hearsal, said “Ben’s on the ta­ble” and got on with it. Peter was very dif­fer­ent when Ben wasn’t around, and when I worked with Peter, Ben was never around. ★e was much eas­ier, much more at ease. ★e would be his own, mas­ter­ful self. The dy­namic of that re­la­tion­ship has never been fath­omed at all. One never quite knew what was go­ing on. You didn’t want to make an en­emy of Pears. ★e was per­fectly amenable pro­vided you ob­served the niceties.’

Many found the idea of the opera dis­taste­ful and balked at the idea of it be­ing au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in any way. It’s not some­thing that seems to have both­ered Bed­ford. ‘It was never a big is­sue, not at all.’

On 16 June, 1973, af­ter just five weeks of re­hearsal, Death in Venice had its pre­miere at the Alde­burgh Fes­ti­val. Opera mag­a­zine’s

Alan Blyth de­scribed Bed­ford’s con­duct­ing as ‘mas­terly’. Brit­ten, re­cu­per­at­ing at home, had still not heard a note of it. Bed­ford can­not re­mem­ber if his mother Les­ley came to the per­for­mance, but thinks she must have done.

Brit­ten was due to see a pri­vate per­for­mance in Septem­ber, but Bed­ford was de­ter­mined ‘to make sure he heard the piece on tape be­fore he saw it in the theatre. I wanted him to hear the mu­sic by it­self first. I can’t think of any ex­am­ple re­motely sim­i­lar to a youngish con­duc­tor driv­ing down to a ma­jor com­poser with stacks of tapes of his lat­est com­po­si­tion. ★ere you’ve got this mag­nif­i­cent opera and the com­poser him­self has not heard a note. Can you imag­ine tak­ing tapes down to Wah­n­fried and play­ing Par­si­fal to Wag­ner be­cause he’d been too ill to hear it? It was quite a nerve-wrack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. So we lis­tened and I would swear that the com­poser was more ner­vous than I was. At the end there was a long si­lence and he said “is it al­right?” I think I said “yes it is al­right, it’s mag­nif­i­cent”. At which point he lurched for the drinks cab­i­net.’

Wish you were here: con­duc­tor Steuart Bed­ford on Alde­burgh Beach; (op­po­site) Peter Pears, di­rec­tor Colin Gra­ham and Bed­ford en­joy the Vene­tian life, 1973; a post­card sent by Brit­ten to Bed­ford

Myth­i­cal crea­tures: Janet Baker, Brit­ten and Bed­ford re­hearse the can­tata Phae­dra in June 1976

Fi­nal re­flec­tions: Peter Pears starred in the Death in Venice pre­miere in 1973

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.