Britten Pears Archive

Way back in January, when we were wrapped up in our warm layers, and indoor hibernation was for no reason other than the cold weather, the Norfolk Record Office Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team hit the road. The destination? The outskirts of the small coastal town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where we would be collecting a new set of sound recordings to be digitally preserved at Norfolk Record Office.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) is a national project chaired by the British Library and made possible due to the generous support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund. An audio preservation project, its aim is to safeguard the UK’s audio archives through digitisation, ensuring that historical sound recordings are preserved for future generations. Norfolk Record Office is the East of England UOSH hub, and works with individuals and organisations across the Eastern Counties, who contribute audio content from archives and private collections to be digitally preserved.

As we approached the coast, we turned off the main route into the town, heading down a rural lane before pulling into the drive way of a charming red brick house. We had arrived at the Red House, the former home of leading 20th century British composer Benjamin Britten, and tenor Peter Pears. The Red House is now a visitor destination run by Britten Pears Arts and includes an exhibition space in addition to the historic home. The site also has an added gem nestled in the gardens, the Britten Pears Archive, which is a rare example of a purpose-built archive dedicated to the life and work of a single pair of musicians. It preserves a plethora of material, from personal effects and correspondences, musical compositions, and developmental plans for Britten’s operatic productions including costume and set designs.

Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, courtesy of the Britten Pears Archive

Benjamin Britten ( 1913 – 1976 ) was one of the 20th century’s great composers. Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, his career as a composer, conductor, and pianist brought him international acclaim, his most well-known works including the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945). Co-founder of the internationally renowned Aldeburgh Festival, Britten’s legacy lives on through the yearly Suffolk based celebration of music and the arts.

Upon arriving at the Red House, we were met by Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library, who treated us to a tour of the site. As we were visiting out of season, the Red House itself was shut up for the winter, its curtains drawn to protect the furnishings from light damage. Each room is preserved with the original furnishings of Britten and Pears, the bookshelves lined with their books, the walls covered with their art. As we were led through the rooms in semi-darkness, it felt as though it was early morning, and that we may stumble across Britten making a cup of coffee in his kitchen or sitting in an armchair reading newspaper. We were taken up a staircase of an outbuilding, to Britten’s composition studio, a modestly furnished white walled room with a desk overlooking the garden, a table covered in books and papers, and a grand piano. It is a tranquil unassuming roof space yet resonates with the important sense that this was a room where musical masterpieces were born upon handwritten scores.

The Composition Studio, The Red House, courtesy of Britten Pears Arts

In addition to paper-based material, the Britten Pears Archive holds a large collection of sound recordings. Our team collected a set of 129 magnetic tape reels, transporting them to Norfolk Record Office where they were to be digitally preserved within our sound studio. The tapes, which were recorded in the 1970’s and 1980’s, document performances held at the Aldeburgh Festival, and within the following months that proceeded this trip, the Norfolk Record Office Audio Preservation Studio was filled with beautiful and dramatic sounds of classical and operatic music.

Several of the reels were subject to ‘Sticky shed syndrome’, a naturally occurring deterioration of magnetic tape. Magnetic audio tape is not made to last forever, and although measures of preventative conservation can be put in place to slow down the process of natural deterioration, ultimately the tape will begin to decay. This was a prime example of the importance of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, where even audio tapes that had been stored with optimum conservation care in a state of the art archive displayed the vulnerability of this analogue format. Our Audio Preservation Engineer carried out a process known as ‘baking’, working in our conservation lab to place each reel in a temperature controlled dehumidifier to remove any moisture particles that had been absorbed into the tape, stabilising them and allowing the audio content to be played and digitised.

To find out more about the Britten Pears Archive, watch Lives in Harmony: the Red House and the archive of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears , a talk presented by Dr Christopher Hilton from the Britten Pears Archive. Dr Hilton presents a fascinating introduction into the extraordinary career of East Anglia’s most prominent musical figure that will appeal to both those familiar and new to his work.

From juvenilia and unpublished works, to a letter from comedian Spike Milligan proposing a collaboration, the talk shares examples from the extensive holdings of the Britten Pears Archive that document Britten’s professional career. Using examples from the archive, Dr Hilton also shares a rare insight into the personal life of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears and how they lived as a couple within the coastal community of Aldeburgh, prior to the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality.

For more information upon the Red House and the Britten Pears Archive, please visit:

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