In 1939, uncertain about the future of Europe and imagining a new life for himself in the New World, the 25-year-old English composer Benjamin Britten set sail for Canada in search of opportunity. Follow his Canadian footsteps and experience the journey by way of his letters, (re-)posted as part of our Britten centennial series on CBC Music.
Letter to Ralph Hawkes
Today's letter is written from a quiet little cottage in the Laurentians, at Gray Rocks (a now defunct resort about 150 kilometres northwest of Montreal, on Lac Ouimet near Mont Tremblant). Britten fills in the details of his trip since arriving in Canada a week ago, and lets his publisher Ralph Hawkes know of his plans.
Gray Rocks Inn Limited
St. Jovite Station
Province of Quebec
May 16th 1939.
My dear Ralph,
Thank you for your letter — I hope by now that you’ve got mine from the boat.
We eventually arrived last Wednesday (9th) & spent two days in Montreal, looking around the place. I went & saw Dr. Gagnier & M. Boudet at the C.B.C. and they treated us like kings & showed us all over the place. They had actually planned to have a show of the Variations on the Tuesday — a welcome of sorts! — but the band wasn’t big or good enough & anyhow, the boat was late. I am now waiting around to hear definitely whether they want me to conduct them in Toronto towards the end of June — it seems pretty definite & so I thought it best to stay about until then & not miss it. So Peter & I heard of this place up in the Laurentians & it’s turned out first class — abit expensive (65 [dollars] together a week), but just what we wanted. We live in a wooden cabin up the hill, away from the Inn itself — very quiet, & with every luxury! There’s tennis, golf, fishing (the place is situated on a glorious lake), hunting & skiing in the winter — I suggest when you come over this might be a good holiday place. People are friendly & very nice.
Anyhow — I got down to my BBC job & finished it yesterday & sent it off to-day. Could you please collect the money & send it to my Solicitor — he’ll probably need it for odd things in England? I suppose they won’t pay any more for it (they mentioned 20 guineas) — it was a hefty job — 15 bits, & about six playing at least a minute. What do you think? Another mercenary thing — the BBC I hear may be repeating the Whitsun programme I did for them last year. Ellis Roberts who did the script (an outsider like myself) gets I hear a fee every time this happens. Do I — or couldn’t I?
I’m now free to start on the Violin Concerto in earnest — & shall probably do so to-day. I’m bucked about it — & hope to get a sketch done while I’m here. It would be grand if Toni Brosa could do it in America next season. I should have to be out here for it, too? We expect to be here for three more weeks — then Ottawa & Toronto for a few days. Then as time is so short it looks as if we may miss Vancouver — it’s so far away, & if we motored it would only leave a fortnight or so before we had to come back. So we rather hanker after the States — New York for a little to contact Heinsheimer & others (probably Willy W. [William Walton] as you suggest — & Aaron Copland & Auden etc.) — & then south for the rest of the time. That’s to say if we can get visas. We tried in Montreal, but they didn’t like the idea of giving them to us, & asked why we didn’t get them in England. I think it would help if you could write an official note saying that we wouldn’t be a burden on the State if we went & that you think we’re good boys & won’t go blowing up things. And then if I can get Heinsheimer to write saying it’s necessary for me to come — & one or two other people — with the help of the Tweedsmuirs — we may get it. But they’re horribly sticky.
Sorry this is so long — but there’s lots to say. I hope you’re well & flourishing — & family too.
We’re enjoying this trip no end — & I’m feeling terrifically fit & out to beat the world with the Fiddle conc!
Britten's letters are © The Britten-Pears Foundation
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Please also keep in touch (write us a note below) and keep reading: you can expect delivery of the next letter in this series on May 18.
Benjamin Britten’s letters from Canada on CBC Music
Benjamin Britten: Letters from a Life (Volume Two 1939-45)
Paul Kildea: Benjamin Britten
on May 16, 2013