Obituary: Kathleen Mitchell
Librarian Dr Nicholas Clark reflects on Kathleen Mitchell's life
Kathleen Mitchell (1916-2017)
The Britten–Pears Foundation pays tribute to Kathleen Mitchell, a close friend of both Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears who has recently passed away, having reached the age of 100 in November last year. Kathleen first became acquainted with both men through her marriage to the music critic Donald Mitchell in 1956. Throughout the following decade, particularly as Donald worked with Britten in establishing the new publishing firm Faber Music, she consolidated that friendship which proved to be life-long.
Education was Kathleen’s primary professional interest and she became well-known in the London area as the Head Teacher of Pimlico School, where she exercised her belief in developing both personal and social education, between 1974 and 1979. It was for this school that Britten planned a new stage piece, ‘A Christmas Sequence’ adapted from the Chester Miracle Cycle, to be performed over five evenings. The idea for this unrealised work obviously owed much to Noye’s Fludde, and perhaps also to the new form of opera that Britten had devised throughout the 1960s, the Church Parables. The composer had dedicated the second Parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace of 1966, to Donald and Kathleen.
Kathleen was eloquent in both spoken and written word. In August 1968 she recorded in her diary a journey to the Edinburgh Festival, where Britten was the chief composer (later published in the Festschrift for Donald Mitchell On Mahler and Britten (ed. Philip Reed). Her memories capture humour, where the hasty swapping of rooms led to confusion about linen and clothing, and dejection as news filtered through about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But Kathleen’s impressions also speak of her thoughtful understanding of Britten and Pears’s music, such as her account of an ‘extraordinarily moving’ performance of Winterreise. There are also more personal observations about the composer:
'… it’s sometimes hard to remember that the charming companion at the breakfast table, joking about his post, having a second sausage & mopping up the toast is the same gifted creature whose hands draw magic sounds from the piano & whose works are performed daily before audiences of hundreds, some of whom have travelled thousands of miles for the experience' (30 August, 1968).
Following Britten and Pears’s deaths, Kathleen supported Donald as he continued his work on the education programme connected with the Britten–Pears School where he arranged and taught a number of courses. The Mitchells purchased Chapel House in Horham, near the Norfolk border, which Britten had bought in 1970. It served as Donald and Kathleen’s country home until 2002, when they began to find the journey from London too taxing. Kathleen also travelled with Donald regularly every year from their London base to the Aldeburgh Festival, usually staying at The Red House. In later years when she began to suffer increasing ill-health her reliance on Donald and upon the housekeeping staff in Aldeburgh (Heather Grant, Jackie Barker and Liz Best) increased. But she remained an enthusiastic concert-goer and was always interested in new projects and developments at the Foundation. Even the restrictions of failing eyesight could neither dampen her enthusiasm about meeting new people, nor prevent her from asking searching questions such as ‘Please tell me about yourself’, or ‘Now, please do explain the theme of this year’s exhibition’.
Kathleen belongs to that privileged group of people who knew Britten and Pears well. The personal correspondence she wrote to both men is now kept in the Archive here in Aldeburgh that Donald helped to establish. Indeed, a few lines from one of the letters Kathleen received from Britten, which appears in the final volume of the Selected Letters series initiated by Donald, conveys much about their valued friendship. Britten had recently returned from a trip to the USA and had stayed at Donald and Kathleen’s comfortable home in Barcombe Mills in the South East (Donald had recently taken a post at the University of Sussex) before returning to Aldeburgh. Britten appreciated Donald’s professional support, but he also prized the relaxation and peace of mind that he seemed to experience whilst in the company of both.
Nov. 3rd 1969
My dearest Kath,
Thank you for your cherishing hospitality last week. You were so kind & thoughtful that it made one’s post-USA tiredness & depression vanish (not only mine but Donald’s too!). You have a most lovely house & garden in Barcombe & I am delighted at last to know it a bit … the whole set-up [at Sussex] seems intelligent, & gentle & inspiring. But with you two just around the corner, how could it not be?
Much love & the warmest thanks to you both,
Image: Benjamin Britten picnicking with Donald and Kathleen Mitchell at Friston, Sussex, August 1974. Photograph by Rita Thomson