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From 'Gramophone' interview with Edward Seckerson (1989)

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George and Andras Schiff recording on Mozart's
piano in Saltzburg in 1993

EricWWA Bridcut2

From Eric Walter White: 'B Britten, His Life & Operas' (1983)


From 'Rethinking Britten' - Philip Rupprecht (2013)

Instead of the sense of generous inclusion that most people appeared to feel in the early years of the festival, there was now a sense of exclusion. George Malcolm speaks of "an organization called The Club. It consisted of people who used to sing or play for Ben." The old feeling of community diminished both among those who came to play or sing and those who came to listen. Meanwhile, Britten, Pears, and whoever was temporarily part of the entourage sometimes looked, as Robert Tear caricatures them, like "Pope, King, a couple of sycophantic academics and perhaps a handmaiden or two strewing palms." Tear sums up the atmosphere of Aldeburgh as he found it in the later years as "weird, personal, unhealthy, obsessive, perhaps incestuous, but above all these seductive." He remembers a place characterized by "waspishness, bitterness, cold, hard eyes ... cabalistic meetings ... secrecy." Of Britten, he says, "there was a great, huge abyss in his soul." John Matthias (1992)

As a boy soprano and Head Chorister at Westminster Cathedral, John Elwes, (then John Hahessy), worked closely with Benjamin Britten and made several recordings with the composer at the piano including the world premiere recordings of Britten's Canticle "Abraham and Isaac" with the tenor Peter Pears, and the “Songs From Friday Afternoons” op. 7. Britten later dedicated his "Corpus Christi Carol" to John Hahessy.

Tenor John Elwes began his musical career at Westminster Cathedral in London where he was Head Chorister. His vocal education was furthered by the eminent harpsichordist George Malcolm, the then Director of Music.  Under the name of John Hahessy he had considerable success as a boy soprano - from BBC broadcasts and recordings with Decca to concerts with such conductors as Benjamin Britten. John is particularly well known for his sensitive and musical performances and his extensive repertoire. He has a busy concert and operatic life performing regularly in Europe, Japan and the USA. He has participated in more than a hundred recordings ranging from the music of Monteverdi to Britten. Notable amongst these recordings are Bach’s B Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion (Harmonia Mundi) with the eminent Dutch conductor Gustav Leonhardt.
Music Network

(Above) From John Bridcut: 'Pocket Faber Guide to Britten' (2010)

Despite what Pears described as a ‘loathsome-ish piano’ they liked the Schloss enough to go back several times; and in 1974 they premiered Britten’s 5th canticle, The Death of St Narcissus, in the Schloss’s concert hall.

It maintains its old identity as a high-minded cultural retreat: a place for international intelligentsia to meet, talk, think. And it’s still very much a retreat for musicians who go there to chill out, take some mountain air, and (in return) play concerts for the other guests.

Schloss Elmau presents around 200 concerts a year. They happen in relatively intimate circumstances, without fuss or fanfares. But they feature some of the biggest names in the business – Ian Bostridge, Martha Argerich, Thomas Quasthoff, Herman Prey, Gidon Kremer, Vadim Repin, Lief Ove Andsnes, Mitsuko Uchida…name a name and they’ll probably have been to Elmau. Quietly. With reverence.
Michael White


David Vissenga (2011)

The singer was born John Hahessy in London, “rock-bottom working-class” as he puts it, the eighth child of an Irish labourer from Tipperary and a British mother. His parents couldn’t look after him, and he was placed in care, ending up for a while at Tapeley Park in Devon. It was owned by the Christie family, who started the Glyndebourne Festival on their more famous property near Lewes in Sussex. John Christie, who founded the festival, was married to the soprano Audrey Mildmay, and on a visit to Tapeley after the war, when the house was given over to “war babies” and abandoned children, she met the five-year-old boy, heard him sing, and wrote to London County Council, in whose care he was, to suggest they send him to a choir school one day. Three years later the suggestion was acted on, and he joined the choir of Westminster Cathedral. If his father hadn’t been Irish, he says, he would probably have been sent to St Paul’s. At Westminster, he worked under the tutelage of George Malcolm, who was cultivating a choral sound that was raw and penetrating compared with what Elwes calls “the more angelic choir-boy sound of the Anglican tradition”.

Malcolm “looked for the roughs and the toughs in the playground, and I was certainly one of those”, says Elwes. “I was a southeast London boy, Cockney-speaking then. I was a bit of a thug, but I could sing. His object was to produce singers, not choristers.” Malcolm wanted his friend, the composer Benjamin Britten, to come and hear the choir before he left Westminster to pursue a career that would make him Britain’s best-known harpsichordist. The composer, says Elwes, “rather liked the sound that George liked. Whereas the Anglican choirs tend to iron out the roughness of boys and make them into angels, George took this and harnessed it and trained it. I think this is the kind of sound that Ben Britten liked – the ruggedness of children. Boys are noisy creatures.”

In January 1959 Britten came to Westminster to hear the boys, who normally only sang in Latin, perform his Ceremony of Carols. “This was the first time Ben heard me sing, and I was still a boy soprano, then, just over 12 years old. The first time I really remember actually looking directly into his face was to do with his writing the Missa Brevis specifically for the Westminster Choir.” He laughs as he recalls the story that when Britten sent the Mass to his publishers, he had written in brackets after the title, Mass in short trousers. “Typical Ben Britten. Schoolboy humour.” The Irish Times (2013)

Tenor John Elwes starts a new Music Network tour on Sunday, Benjamin Britten as I Knew Him, a story that concentrates on a few years when Elwes was a chorister at Westminster Cathedral.

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Under George Guest's direction, St John's choir built up a formidable reputation, challenging the supremacy of the choir of King's College, Cambridge. Guest introduced a more "continental" tone into the choir, as George Malcolm was doing at Westminster Cathedral. (Wikipedia)

He had formed a high opinion of the work of George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral, who trained his boy choristers to sing in a forthright style more akin to that associated with choirs on the Continent. This approach to vocal technique was brought to St John's, and in turn taken by a succession of his organ students, each in his own way, to other choirs. Independent (2002)

Established at the time of the 1st World War, it was the creation of a maverick Lutheran theologian, Johannes Muller, who broke away from the church and became a celebrated thinker, guru, spiritual guide, teaching that the way to God was not through institutions but through the surrender of the self in art and nature. Elmau, situated in a vast, green, empty valley fringed by snow-capped mountains with jaw-dropping views in all directions, was a natural place for this self-less experience of God to happen. And to encourage it, he also made the schloss a home for cultural and literary activity.

Musicians like the pianist Wilhlem Kempff would be in residence alongside politicians, writers and philosophers. There would be regular concerts, of a somewhat stern sort with no applause (because they were supposedly devotional encounters rather than mere entertainments). And because Muller believed music should be a participatory rather than passive exercise, the audience was expected to dance to the music. Not just sit and listen. Sehr Deutsch.

By the 1950s, after wartime distractions, the music programme had grown into something of substance that pulled in big names. Menuhin went to Elmau, So did the Amadeus Quartet, Emil Gilels, George Malcolm, Julian Bream…And so, in 1959, did Britten and Pears for the founding of what was called a British-German Chamber Music Festival that ran for a week in January.


From the 1950s through to the 1970s Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears used to visit a place called Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian alps, an hour’s fast drive from Munich; and they went there, as musicians still do, partly to play, partly to experience an extraordinary set-up that has not unfairly been described as a ‘moral sanatorium’.

"To my mind, there was nobody like George Malcolm on the harpsichord, I mean, he played with such verve, with such vigour, and with such inventiveness..." Julian Bream