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Making Musicians: A Personal History of the Britten-Pears School by Moira Bennett (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 444-446 | 10.1353/not.2014.0013

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Making Musicians, by Moira Bennett, chronicles the struggles and successes of the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, a program for young musicians founded by composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears in Suffolk, U.K. The content of the book’s 232 pages is split fairly evenly between historical narrative on the one hand and images of various kinds on the other. The combination makes for a pleasant read with most pages featuring engaging pictures of the school’s participants as well as block quotations of their remembrances. The book’s landscape-style format with squat, wide pages allows for two columns of text and images per page, facilitating a plethora of pictures that show well on thick, glossy paper.

Thumbing through the book, a reader cannot help but be taken in by the lively black-and-white photos that capture the expressive faces and bodies of musicians in action: perusing scores, conducting ensembles, demonstrating musical gestures, playing instruments, dancing, talking, singing, and thinking, in rehearsal, classes, or even in fully costumed operatic productions. Beyond the artists themselves, photos also record the transformation of the old brewery buildings into rooms dedicated to making music, with “before” pictures of the rustic old beams of the granary and “after” pictures featuring the rehearsal space, entrance and recital halls, and library shelves full of books. In addition to substantial quotes from participants set off by rectangle borders, other insets recreate a variety of course listings and donor records as well as concert programs. Although they are not facsimiles of actual documents, these items complement the story of the school.

Bennett’s “personal history”—part memoir, part carefully researched record—bubbles with an excitement reflecting the school’s evolution from merely an idea in the 1950s, to a new venture in the 1970s and 1980s, to a well-established school with an international reputation by the end of the century. Bennett herself joined the staff of the Britten-Pears School in 1979, the year that it officially opened, and stayed until 1982, when she became Head of Development for the Aldeburgh Foundation (the umbrella organization for the school, the Aldeburgh Festival, and the Snape Maltings Concert Hall). Graham Johnson, an accompanist for early master classes, describes Bennett as a young “mother of the school” who enchanted Peter Pears and made the school a “happy place” for students and teachers alike (p. 11).

The historical narrative proceeds in more or less chronological order, flashing backward and forward as needed to build the backstory, as well as give a sense of what the young musicians went on to accomplish after attending the school. In an account that features so many participants, this back-and-forth allows Bennett to follow the thread of each individual’s story, although at times it can become somewhat confusing. The book is divided into five chapters with the two outer ones serving as introduction and conclusion. The three interior chapters cover successive time spans. The first focuses on the early years (1953–79) in which ideas took shape, initial classes were held, and the building renovation was planned and executed. The second covers the years following the official opening of the school (1979–87) when routines were established. The third addresses the years directly after Pears’s death (1987–91), during which the school went through important changes in an effort to stay current, eventually becoming the Britten–Pears Young Artist Program. The narrative leaves off in 1991; some readers may feel that it cuts off too early, but the final chapter provides closure and points toward the future.

The introduction, subtitled “The Setting,” surveys the sometimes benign, sometimes desolate landscape of the eastern Suffolk coast and particularly the nearby towns of Snape, where the school was located on the site of an old maltings, and Aldeburgh, the sea-battered coastal town where Britten and Pears lived. Bennett’s vivid description of the location may inspire more than one reader to consider traveling to this enchanting place. She includes a quote from conductor Yehudi Menuhin comparing the locale to Britten’s music, “If wind and water could write music, it would sound like Ben’s” (p. 14). Throughout the...

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