Saturday 27 May 2017

Joyce Grenfell's Lost Song by Janie Hampton

Benjamin Britten, Joyce Grenfell, Peter Pears at The Red House, June 1967
In 1947 the British composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the singer Peter Pears, fulfilled their dream when they started the Aldeburgh Music Festival, in Suffolk. Aldeburgh is a pretty fishing town on the East coast of England, unchanged since its hey-day in the early 19th century. At first concerts and lectures were performed in local churches and village halls. The British writer and entertainer Joyce Grenfell (1910-79) and her devoted husband Reggie went every June for the music, the people and the bird watching. Joyce liked all types of music, as long as it was good: Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Gershwin and Rogers. ‘I would rather go to a concert than the theatre, cinema or an exhibition,’ she wrote. In 1966 she wrote to her friend the writer Virginia Graham: ‘All the usuals here, such as Lady Dashwood, in modern clothes and assisted brunette hair-do. June is a magic month in Suffolk & the drive over to Orford in a faint summer haze with long blue shadows was breathtaking. Ditches full of Queen Anne’s lace, wild roses, elder flower in full cream, and a nightingale sang in the church yard, as we were going in! Such production!
‘Lovely day ended with an accolade from Ben: “Will I do a concert here next year for the new concert hall and the 20th festival?” “Yes of course Ben,” I say. At once, sitting in the parish church hearing but I fear not listening to, lovely early Byrd, I started panicking about new material for the event.’
‘My Dear Ben,’ she wrote shortly after, ‘I feel truly honoured to be asked to be part of the best festival in the world. It is the compliment I am more proud of than anything that has ever happened to me. I mean this. Your music past and present - and future – makes me feel as if I had been taken into space. I always feel music, such as Beethoven’s late quartets, is already there from the beginning. With love Joyce. P.S. Please thank Peter, too, for his singing in Curlew River - oh and in the Schumann!’
Joyce Grenfell, circa 1945.
Joyce Grenfell was an unusual choice for this rather intellectual concert series. But Britten must have known that her comedy show would subsidise the more esoteric offerings. Also in that year's programme were the Vienna Boys’ choir, The Castaway by Lennox Berkeley, a new production of Britten’s The Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Plomer reading poetry, a talk on Anglo-Saxon Ship-Burials, and ended with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Three events each day gave everyone time to enjoy each performance and the place, without having to rush. Joyce wrote two new monologues: about an intense American music student called Marty Winderhauer, and a new Shirley’s Girlfriend with her whistling from behind a pulpit. She and her pianist and composer William Blezard also wrote a song in praise of Britten. ‘I have never toiled, polished, worked on anything as I have on this ditty,’ she wrote. ‘I was praying that he would like it.’
In case Britten didn’t like it, Joyce and Blezard performed the song for Britten on the morning of the concert at The Red House where Britten lived with Peter Pears, just outside Aldeburgh. The song is one of Joyce Grenfell's most sophisticated - a recitative of puns set to Blezard's  lively jazz accompaniment.
'How benevolent is the setting
Suffolk winds benignly blow
Benefitting all who came here
And to concerts go oh-oh-oh
Seats benumb on Parish church benches
But the benefited ear recognises benediction
In the wonders it can hear
Bene, bene molto bene.'
Joyce was amazed by Britten’s reaction. ‘I was quite flummoxed,’ she wrote to Virginia Graham. ‘Ben ran to me and embraced me, weeping! He was very touched and moved. It was very dear and entirely unexpected.’
So fifty years ago, at the concert that night on 5 June 1967, in the Jubilee Hall, the song was rapturously received and the audience called out for an encore. But Joyce thought it was a ‘one occasion song’ and did not sing an encore, nor ever performed it again.
The next day Britten wrote to Joyce: ‘It was a joy to have you here, & we are grateful to you for the incomparably funny and wise evening you gave us - we were the honoured ones! Come back again, both of you, & do another such evening for us - ‘as near the bone’ as you like to make it. Love Ben.’ Joyce replied: ‘Dear Ben, Thank you for letting me be a small part of this 20th festival. There is something about the Aldeburgh Festival that makes one want to do far better than one has ever done before, anywhere else in the world. It is a challenge to keep up to the standard you & Peter give, that goes far beyond the line of duty!’
Back in London, Joyce and Blezard made a gramophone record and sent it to The Red House. Three years later, in 1970, Britten wrote: ‘I do hope this letter reaches you in a forgiving mood! Peter & I were hunting for an ancient record in a seldom used cupboard, & to our great surprise, then delight, & then horror, we found a record you’d sent us, away back in 1967, which neither of us had seen before. I can only imagine your handsome & delightful Tribute was ‘tidied away’. I somehow think you will forgive, for you are so grand a person.’
Joyce replied, ‘Of course I understand & of course I forgive! What’s more I can imagine the wave of horror you felt when you discovered the record and you have my deepest sympathy.’ And the record and the song were forgotten again.
Postcard from Joyce to Donald Swann, 1951
While I was researching the biography of Joyce Grenfell 15 years ago, I found Britten’s and Grenfell’s letters in separate archives. After I’d put copies of them together in chronological order, I started to look for the song Bene . But by then William Blezard had lost the manuscript; the Aldeburgh festival manager had just died; and the Britten-Pears archivist had never heard of it. Ten years later I tried again, and after some further searching at The Red House, the single gramophone record of the Bene song was found, mislabelled but still in perfect condition.
Not heard for nearly 40 years, it was broadcast for the first time on Joyce Grenfell at Aldeburgh Festival on BBC Radio 3 in 2005.
Joyce visited Aldeburgh Music Festival every year from 1962, until a few weeks before her death in 1979. Listening to a performance of an "advanced" piano piece, Grenfell composed her own obituary: 'She died from opening her mind too far'.


Joan Lennon said...

Just lovely - thank you!

AnnP said...

Yes, a lovely story. Thank you from me too.