by John | May 12, 2016 |

Benjamin Britten: The Old Mill, Snape

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Mornings are transformations. Britten once told me about them at Snape Mill. How he would leave a shiny black piano downstairs and find a matt white one when he woke up. Old, old flour would drift down on it from the seamy beams all night. Ronald Blythe, The Time by the Sea, 2013, 11.

One of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976), born and raised on the Suffolk coast, composed some of England’s most powerful and evocative music at the Old Mill, Snape. Home to Britten and his partner and muse Peter Pears (1910 - 1986), the Old Mill was converted in 1937 to provide a large working studio and living quarters that looked down over Snape Maltings, the River Alde and whispering reeds. Lured to the United States in 1939, Britten remained there only two years, missing the inspirational setting of Snape and his roundhouse home.

The Old Mill operated as a working mill until 1933. Britten purchased it in 1937 and it was converted by architect Arthur Welford (who transpired to be Britten’s sister’s father-in-law) free of charge out of support for the young composer. The large working studio was accommodated on the ground floor of the roundhouse. The roof was raised to provide a bedroom with a recessed balcony and window traversing one third of the circumference to take advantage of the stunning outlook. The existing single storey cottage formed a kitchen, living room and two further bedrooms whilst the adjoining granary was converted into another studio for Britten's fellow composer Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). The two had become firm friends since meeting in Barcelona in 1936. The rent from Berkeley assisted with the finances. The roundhouse and cottages were linked by a timber framed single storey extension housing a boiler room, fuel store, bathroom and shower room. Although open fires were constructed in the principal rooms, the Architect advised central heating also be installed throughout and the original cast iron radiators have been refitted in the recent refurbishment. Britten was certainly ahead of his time in having a shower installed in 1937 in England. Works were complete at the end of April 1938 and the composer moved in to "this quaint old village" as he described Snape in a letter to a friend.

The Old Mill became meeting place for many of the mid-twentieth century’s finest artists, musicians and writers, including E M Forster, John Piper, W H Auden and Aaron Copland. It was an article Forster wrote on local poet George Crabbe (1754 - 1832) that called Britten back to the Suffolk coast and inspired him to compose Peter Grimes, an opera based on Crabbe’s The Borough (1810).

Returning to England in 1942, Britten and Pears registered as conscientious objectors, and gave concerts for the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts and to aid the work of the Friends’ War Relief Service, believing that they could better serve the world by music than by fighting. In Snape Britten continued to compose. Ronald Blythe (famed author of Akenfield, 1969 and Britten’s acquaintance) recalls how Britten would compose when walking, ‘wander[ing] along the wet paths, his curly head coming and going through the dense reedheads’ of the Sailor’s Path (2013, 94-5). These works include: The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; The Rape of Lucretia, opera; Albert Herring, comic opera.
Creators of the Aldeburgh Festival in the 1940s, Britten and Pears soon found that the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh was too small for the audiences they were attracting and began looking for a larger concert venue. From the Old Mill, overlooking the derelict Snape Maltings and magnificent riverside setting, Britten and Pears set to work to convert the Maltings into the world famous concert hall it is today.

In 1955, Britten having moved to Crag House in Aldeburgh, the Old Mill was sold as a holiday home. Garden Cottage and Miller’s Cottage, part of the Old Mill, recently have been restored to provide charming self-catering accommodation for four and is let by Suffolk Cottage Holidays.

The Red House in Aldeburgh is home to the Britten Pears Foundation, where Britten and Pears lived and worked for Britten’s final two decades of his life. The foundation promotes Britten’s music and his work with singer Pears and is open to visitors year-round. Aldeburgh Festival continues to take place each summer at Snape Maltings


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