Listen to Britten played on Britten’s VERY OWN viola

16 October 2018, 15:05 | Updated: 23 October 2018, 11:14

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

This 1843 Giussani viola used to belong to the composer Benjamin Britten – and it sounds utterly sublime.

The instrument was first owned by Frank Bridge, Britten’s viola teacher. Bridge began teaching Britten in London in 1928, when the composer was just 14.

Britten was Bridge’s favourite pupil. So when Britten left for the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War, Bridge gave him his viola as a leaving present.

It now belongs to the Britten-Pears Foundation, a charity based at The Red House which promotes the musical legacy of Britten and his professional and personal partner, Peter Pears. The musical pair knew each other for nearly 40 years, and lived together at the Suffolk residence.

Read more about Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears >

The priceless instrument, which rarely makes an outing from the foundation, is currently on loan to violist Hélène Clément. We met her with the instrument at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she played some Britten for us.

“From the second I tried it, I thought it was unbelievable,” Clément says. “It doesn’t have that very cello-like sound that some violas try to accomplish – it has a [distinctly] ‘viola’ sound, very bright and rich, which I love.”

This month, Hélène is recording the entire catalogue of Britten quartets on the instrument, together with her ensemble – the Doric Quartet – at Snape Maltings in Suffolk.

Britten wrote nine compositions for string quartet, including his String Quartet No. 1 in D major (1941), which contains a particularly poignant viola part.

“For me, [playing this viola] changed a lot about how I view Britten’s music,” Clément continues. “And for me to play this instrument and know that’s the kind of sound Britten felt when he wrote, is extremely special and inspiring.

“I’m very lucky I get to play it, because it could just be in a museum and be looked at. But I think it needs to live and play Britten’s music.”