The morning Diana died

Twenty years ago, the Britten-Pears Orchestra were billed to give the last night of the Snape Proms at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk.

Strauss waltzes were on the programme. The concert was sold out.

I know this detail because I was the orchestra manager, charged with booking the players, the conductor, setting up music stands, and as I recall, proposing the programme.

Early on the morning of the concert – Sunday 31 August – I received a telephone call in my flat on Britten Close in Aldeburgh.

“Jon. Have you seen the news?”

The phone crackled a bit. It was Hugh Maguire (below), former leader of various London orchestras, Head of Strings at Britten-Pears, and the conductor for the ‘last night’ concert, calling from a village just a few miles away.

Bleary-eyed and a little unnerved that Hugh was calling me at home, I coughed and confirmed that I hadn’t heard the news. I reminded him it was quite early.

“Princess Diana’s died. We need to change the programme for this afternoon’s concert. I was thinking Brahms. Do you have any Brahms? Can you get access to the Britten-Pears Library and get some Brahms? Or some Schubert? What do you think? Brahms or Schubert? Or what about Beethoven 7?”

I liked it when Hugh asked me what I thought about things. He may not have necessarily heard anything of what I said in response, but to be engaged with on a matter other than travel and accommodation arrangements flattered me a bit.

“I don’t think the Britten-Pears Library is open on a Sunday, Hugh.”

I was still in a bit of a daze. Not really processing the news, or what Hugh was proposing. All I did understand was that an entire programme of Strauss waltzes did, on the face of it, now seem a little crass.

As it turned out, the Britten-Pears Library at Britten’s former home, the Red House, did end up opening on a Sunday morning. I didn’t go, the Director of the Britten-Pears School went instead. When she returned, the news wasn’t especially good.

“Can you believe it?” she said to me incredulously, “they wouldn’t let us borrow any of the orchestral parts – they said they were too ‘precious’.”

I could believe it. It seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Here was music marked up by musicians who had been conducted by Benjamin Britten himself.

The curators of the Britten-Pears Library weren’t going to be especially keen to have history rubbed-out and marked-up differently for the sake of a dead Princess.

“What’s the point in having music in a library if it’s not allowed to be played?” she added. “Still, I’ve got an idea. They did agree to loan me the conductor’s score.”

I paused, waiting for the idea.

“So I was thinking that we could photocopy the conductor’s score, cut out each line from the copies and create individual parts for the orchestra.”

I’m all for bold statements and grand achievements, but given there was only 90 minutes before the final orchestral rehearsal got underway, what the Director of the School was proposing seemed a little ambitious, even by my standards.

I shook my head, slowly.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. There isn’t the time to do it. There only has to be one mistake in the music we’ve put together and the whole thing will be a disaster.”

I was being an orchestral manager. A good one. Identifying risk and presenting it as very real.

She persisted with a slight irritation in her voice.

“I think there’s time. It’s Schubert’s Unfinished, not Beethoven 7.”

I dug my heels in. I’m glad I did. Orchestral management (booking players, arranging travel, scheduling rehearsals and the ilk) demands a special kind of brain, one my parents had failed to bestow on me. The job was already stressful enough. Adding to the pressure seemed foolish.

Another phone call to the Britten-Pears Library. First the Director, then Hugh Maguire. A car journey to and from Aldeburgh.

Ten minutes before the final rehearsal gets underway, the instrumental parts for Schubert’s Unfinished were on the music stands being peered at by the orchestra. When one of them bemoaned the fact they’d spent a week rehearsing Strauss waltzes most of which weren’t going to be played, I said, “Consider it a lucky escape.”

I can’t be sure even now, but it seems like a fairly safe bet that the parts we were using for that performance were those used in a 1972 recording made by the English Chamber Orchestra with Britten conducting.

To the best of my knowledge, the ECO never recorded Strauss waltzes.

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