Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 1

Benjamin Britten in 1938
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in 1938

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986), left England in late April 1939 for North America. Their ship arrived in Quebec on May 9, 1939, then sailed on to Montreal. After staying a few weeks in Canada, Britten and Pears set off for New York, where they were reunited with the poet, fellow pacifist and homosexual W.H. Auden.  Britten was stunned by New York City, writing a friend:

“New York is a staggering place. Very beautiful in some ways – intensely alive and doing – bewildering in some ways, but always interesting.”

Britten and Pears remained on the east coast of the United States for two years. Britten composed and had his works performed; he and Pears performed together and separately; they schmoozed, partied, and became part of the New York music scene. Britten used their residence in Amityville, on Long Island as his base of operations for concert trips to New England, Chicago, and various other locations in the American Midwest.

But for Britten (as for so many of us!) the lure of California was overwhelming, and in June of 1941, Britten and Pears drove across country from New York to California in an old, borrowed “Ford V8”. They had been invited to stay rent free in Escondido (just north of San Diego) with the English husband-and-wife piano duo of Rae Robertson and Ethel Bartlett, who were there for the summer. No sooner had Britten arrived that he received a visit from one of the great American patrons of music, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953).…

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