City Chorus member Steve’s poignant memories of a ‘genius’

Joining the centenary celebrations for Benjamin Britten in Sheffield is someone with a personal connection with the composer.

Steve Terry is a member of Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus who are performing Britten’s War Requiem, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the prize winning Lindley Junior School from Huddersfield

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

The former Head of International Development at Sheffield Hallam University is sponsoring the concert in the City Hall on Sunday, December 1, in memory of his wife, Morgan, and “in celebration of the genius” of the man he knew personally as a young boy.

In 1962 at the age of 11 he joined the newly formed London Boy Singers which was supported by Britten who was seeking more hard-edged voices than the prevalent cathedral sound.

That was the year of the first performance of the War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. “It was a momentous event, especially for me, as my father was a sound engineer with the BBC’s outside broadcast team,” reports Steve.

“But just a week later, Britten was rehearsing us in a less salubrious setting in East Finchley for our first concert at the Aldeburgh Festival in June.

“Even as little boys, we all knew that he was a famous composer, and about the success of the War Requiem, and were amazed at how friendly, relaxed and unpatronising he was, and very patient.

“The recording took place in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh and I got to know him quite well, and my mother and I visited him and Peter Pears at their home at the Red House.

He was a kind, generous, thoughtful man, who seemed to be very comfortable in the company of a ‘voluble’ young teenager.

“I stayed over three times and he had quite strict routines and we would go out for walks and he was very interested in what was going on in my life. Of course now I have to add that there was never any suggestion of any ‘inappropriate behaviour’ - he was like a fairy-tale uncle, living in a beautiful house full of treasures and creating the most remarkable music, which I found both accessible and intellectually and emotionally challenging.”

Steve’s friendship with Benjamin Britten continued until the composer’s death in 1976 and he sang at his funeral in Aldeburgh.

That was the year he met his wife, Morgan, when they were starting out on careers teaching English abroad. Steve took early retirement after she died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 61.

“She didn’t know much of Britten’s music when we met, but she came to appreciate lots of it,” he recalls. “None of his works moved her more than the War Requiem, which we heard together on numerous occasions. He’s left us the War Requiem as a reminder of both the barbaric horror that war can produce, but also, in my view, of the opportunities for reconciliation.

“The War Requiem juxtaposes the Latin requiem mass with poems by Wilfred Owen who describes graphically and movingly the horror and futility of war. This seems particularly relevant as our performance comes not long before what David Cameron so inappropriately described as the ‘celebrations’ of the First World War which begin next year.

“It also seems appropriate for Sheffield with its long term commitment to peace, and its own suffering during the Second World War. The War Requiem will give hundreds of people a chance to think about war and what it means to individuals caught up in it, and how we feel about it.”