Serenade for Tenor, Saxophone and Orchestra (“My Dear Benjamin”)

by lylechan on September 12, 2016

Michael Duke, John Woolford (Wulff Scherchen) and Lyle Chan. Photo by Paul Woolford.
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Update Jan 2017: ABC Classic FM has broadcast this work for the second time. The replay can be heard here until Feb 14, 2017.

Update Nov 2016: The broadcast of the entire concert can be heard on ABC Classic FM’s website until Dec 22. Click here to listen.

On September 22, 2016, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Brisbane Festival present the world-premiere of an orchestral song cycle called Serenade for Tenor, Saxophone and Orchestra (“My Dear Benjamin”). The respective booking pages are here and here.

I am tremendously grateful to not just the orchestra and festival but also the soloists and conductor – Andrew Goodwin (tenor), Michael Duke (saxophone) and Paul Kildea (conductor) – for their belief in this work and the commitment and all that it takes to learn a major new work lasting nearly 40 minutes.

I am also indebted to the Britten-Pears Foundation for their approval to proceed with the world-premiere performances and the Woolford family for their trust, support and assistance.
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During January of 2015 – summer vacation in Australia – I read a book that had been sitting on my book shelf for about 10 years. It was John Bridcut’s Britten’s Children. I had bought it because I’d been collecting books on Britten. Like Shostakovich, Britten was one of these composers whose music I was curious about because I did not automatically like it, and I wondered if it could be an acquired taste.

So I read this brilliant book and discovered there were in fact two significant romances in Britten’s life. His relationship with Peter Pears is very well known, even held up as an early example of an openly gay couple when being gay was actually illegal in the United Kingdom. But just about no one knew of his first relationship, with a young German man named Wulff Scherchen.

Wulff was the son of the conductor Hermann Scherchen, who had premiered so many masterpieces of his time like the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg. In June 1934 they were all at the festival in Florence of the International Society for Contemporary Music, little Wulff, 13 (nearly 14), tagging along his father. Britten, 21, and Wulff became fast friends, even sharing a macintosh raincoat one day in Siena when rain started.

Four years later, Britten discovered that Wulff was living with his mother in Cambridge, not so far from Britten’s home – a converted windmill – in Suffolk. Britten invited Wulff to come for a weekend, and they thus began a romantic friendship, the first for both these young men.

The letters between Wulff and Britten survive, which is how we know so much about the relationship. The main reason for there being so many letters was their physical separation much of the time. Not only did they live in different parts of the UK, but then Britten left for America in 1939 for career reasons as well as in anticipation of Great Britain entering the war. And then with the onset of World War II itself Wulff, a German national living in the UK, was interned as an enemy alien and deported to a Prisoner of War camp in Canada.

The letters chart an intense, eventful relationship from 1938 to 1941. After Wulff’s first visit to Suffolk, Britten wrote, “even the clouds are crying because you’ve gone away”. From the POW camp, Wulff wrote to Britten, “the one person [who] was constantly in my thoughts and on my mind without fail was you. No one else occupied my heart, my mind or my body.”

But the war played havoc with communication. Letters arrived out of order. They were censored. Britten and Wulff spent months wondering what the other was thinking.

After the long separation of the war they finally met again, but both were changed people. They tacitly acknowledged that their relationship was over. Britten had begun his relationship with Peter Pears, and Wulff soon married the woman he loved.

I was very struck by this story and its combined elements of crush, puppy love and first love. Despite the 6 year age difference – and Britten was emotionally young, even underdeveloped, for his age – these were two people experiencing romance for the first time. They were a match. Every declaration of love was unequivocal and absolute. And being, in effect if not in fact, both teenagers, their letters also have a juvenile schoolboy humour that I found quite cute.

As an artist, I know of no greater way to respect and honour a story than to make a work of art from it. The natural arc of the story – from the bloom of first love to the war-time separation to the grown-up recognition that a relationship had run its course – seemed ready-made for something like a movie or opera.

For his book Britten’s Children (and documentary film of the same name), John Bridcut had interviewed Wulff Scherchen, a real coup because it was the first time he’d spoken on the record about his relationship with Britten. So Wulff was very much alive in 2004. And this was the part that suddenly got my attention – he had been living in Australia since the 1980s, in Ballina near Byron Bay.

I wondered if Wulff were still alive. If he were, he’d be about 95.

So contacted a newspaper editor in Ballina and said I’m looking for John Woolford. I knew he had change his name – he had gotten an early release from the Prisoner of War camp by joining the British army, ironically, and to do this he had to lose his obviously German name.

Next I knew, a man named Paul Woolford called me and said, I understand you’re looking for my dad.

And that was what led me to meet John Woolford in July 2015 at the nursing home in Ballina where he and his wife lived. I had to remind myself that I was asking someone to recollect events from over 80 years ago. His son Paul told me that John had started to show dementia. But he was perfectly lucid, if hard of hearing. I sometimes wrote my questions down to show him to make sure he understood completely, and he answered in his resonant and perfectly enunciated speech. This was a man who loved telling stories and was accustomed to and enjoyed holding court.

His replies were in vivid detail. These were cherished memories.

When I asked for his permission to turn his story and writings into a song cycle, he was pleased and agreed but modestly said he wasn’t sure if they deserved such a treatment. I said that everyone I’ve told his story to had been completely captivated.

In fact, Wulff’s letters were more expressive and poetic than Britten’s, which had a matter of fact quality. Sometimes you got the impression Wulff was the adult and Britten the child.

Michael Duke came along with me to meet John Woolford. A saxophonist, Michael is an ongoing collaborator for whom I had written Chaconne. He came along because of a theory I had about the saxophone.

When Britten and Wulff met in Italy in 1934, they heard the saxophonist Sigurd Rascher who was also attending the international Society of Contemporary Music. Rascher would became the most important saxophonist of the century as Glazunov, Hindemith and other major composers wrote for him. Rascher’s playing made a great impression on the pair. In their letters they refer to him as “the wonderful saxophonist with the red hair.”

I think the saxophone is a private symbol of Britten’s feelings for Wulff because the instrument is used prominently in Britten’s works in the period of their relationship (eg. Our Hunting Fathers, Sinfonia da Requiem) but suddenly disappears when Britten begins his relationship with Peter Pears. The instrument only makes its occasional reappearance in later Britten works when there is a homoerotic subtext, such as Billy Budd and The Prince of the Pagodas.

I mentioned my theory to John Bridcut, and he said I could be onto something. My job as an artist is necessarily different to that of a biographer or historian; I have to act on what I believe to be true, as opposed to what is provable. Michael Duke and I did ask John Woolford whether the saxophone was indeed a special symbol, but he didn’t know. Their letters show they actually almost never discussed musical things. As much as he loved music, he wasn’t anywhere near Britten’s musical equal even as a listener. They even used to disagree over music. In one of his last letters to Britten, full of nostalgia, Wulff nonetheless recollected, “your anger when I could not bear to listen to Stravinsky one night.” And Wulff would deliberately tease Britten about his modernity; once he heard Britten’s “The Sword in the Stone” on the radio and wrote to him complaining it was ‘headachy’. I think in truth, the saxophone operated on at least two levels for Britten, both a purely musical attraction based on its unique timbre and developing association with jazz, and one involving his homoerotic feelings, for Wulff in particular.

This is a structural summary of the work. It is in 4 sections:

Part 1 “Epilogue”, 1941 – Wulff Scherchen’s final letter to Britten reminiscing of their now-ended relationship. “You are the greatest influence I have ever experienced … you were my first friend & the hours we spent together were and are the happiest and best of my life”.

England, 1938 – Britten’s first letter to Wulff, the latter’s cheeky reply à la Mae West. Wulff visits Britten at his home, a windmill in Suffolk. Numerous playful, affectionate and passionate letters exchanged.

Part 2 America, 1939 – Britten departs for America to avoid the entry of Great Britain into World War II and immediately regrets it, “I feel worse & worse about being away from you – & think of you more than I’d care to admit.” The old photo [of you] makes me horribly home- & Wulff-sick!!” War breaks out.

Part 3 Canada, 1940 – Wulff is interned and sent to Canada as an enemy alien. He is reduced to asking Britten to send cigarettes and money for haircuts and toothpaste. “You must forgive me, if in every letter I seem to be asking for things to be sent.” Their relationship becomes strained from the separation of more than 1½ years.

Part 4 England, 1941 – Britten and Wulff return to England, separately. They tacitly acknowledge their relationship is over. Wulff writes, “You value me as a friend and you value me as a person. That is all I want to know. You are thinking of me & so my thoughts are put at rest.”

The complete song texts can be read here.

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