Composer Lyle Chan explains how he won the blessing of the 96-year-old whose first crush was Benjamin Britten.

Astute readers with an interest in classical music might have noted the passing last month of John Woolford, who as Wulff Scherchen was known for his early and intense friendship with the composer Benjamin Britten. Australians might additionally have observed that ‘John’ had married, had four children and emigrated to Australia, dying at the age of 96. Next week, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and tenor Andrew Goodwin will perform My Dear Benjamin, a new song cycle by Australian composer Lyle Chan, that sets Britten and Scherchen’s letters to music. The conductor will be Paul Kildea, a noted interpreter as well as a biographer of Britten.

The catalyst for the work was John Bridcut’s seminal Britten’s Children – a book outlining several of the composer’s friendships with young men and boys – which had sat on Chan’s bookshelf for a decade before he got around to reading it. “I was really struck by this story of Britten’s first romantic relationship,” Chan tells me. “And then I saw that at the time the book was written, Wulff Scherchen was still alive in Australia. I managed to contact him through a newspaper editor in Ballarat who helped me get in touch with his son, who helped me get in touch with John Woolford. I call him John in the present time and Wulff in the ’30s and ’40s. It’s become a habit of mine.”

Michael Duke, Wulff Scherchen and Lyle Chan, photographed in Ballina on July 1, 2015. Photo by Paul Woolford

Wulff first met Britten in 1934 when his father, the great conductor Hermann Scherchen, took him on a trip from Germany for a meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Florence. Wulff was 14, the composer was 21. However, there was no further contact until four years later after pressure from the Nazis at home had led Wulff and his mother to settle in Cambridge. That summer of 1938 saw the 18-year-old Wulff visiting Britten at the Old Mill in Snape where they’d spend time listening to music and playing tennis. A close friendship developed involving trips to London where Britten introduced Wulff to his artistic circle and magnetic personalities like WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

Chan was drawn to the complexities in what he describes as Woolford’s story of “puppy-love”, and especially by the contents of a series of letters that passed between the two over a period of several years. Even though the composer’s relationship with Peter Pears essentially supplanted Wulff’s place in his affections, the two remained close. As conscientious objectors, Britten and Pears left for America at the start of the war in 1939, while the German-born Wulff was interned as an enemy alien and shipped off to a camp in Canada. “It was because he was separated from Britten that many of these letters exist between them,” Chan explains. “They are so heartfelt. I wanted to draw attention to what I thought was a little-known story in the only way I knew how, which was to make a work of art out of it.”

Once in contact with Woolford, Chan asked if he might turn some of the letters and some of Wulff’s poetry into a song cycle. “John said that he didn’t know if they were worthy of being turned into songs, but said that if I thought so, then yes,” says Chan. “Actually it was Britten who awoke Wulff’s interest in poetry. There’s this later letter from him to Britten saying ‘in a way, all of my poetry is dedicated to you, because you put me on to writing poetry’. Wulff adored Auden – you can see and hear his influence – and in fact when I met with him, it was really clear to me how much John cherished that time. He got to meet that circle and it was the happiest time of his youth.”

In an echo of Britten’s famous Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the full title of Chan’s work is Serenade for Tenor, Saxophone and Orchestra. The presence of the saxophone, played in the premiere by Michael Duke, is no accident. “Britten and Wulff met Sigurd Raschèr in Florence in 1934,” Chan explains. “He wasn’t that famous then but he went on to be one of the saxophonists and he clearly made a big impression on them because he shows up in their letters. In later correspondence Britten refers to him as the ‘great saxophonist with the red hair’. I don’t think other biographers have picked up on this, but the saxophone started showing up in Britten’s works from the moment he, Wulff and Raschèr met. And when the relationship with Wulff eventually terminated in 1941, the saxophone just disappears from Britten’s output until much later – like in Billy Budd, where there is a clear homoerotic context. For me, whether it was conscious or not, the saxophone was a symbol of Britten’s feelings for Wulff.”

Britten at the Old Mill in 1944. Photo by Enid Slater with thanks to her estate, managed by Bridget Kitley

“I wanted the saxophone in the song cycle to play a role similar to the way Britten used it in his works, where it is part of the orchestra and comes out every now and then with beguiling tunes that draw your ear. Sometimes it is the unconscious thoughts of the person who is singing. But I also use it to represent the other voice – the one that isn’t singing. So there’s a psychological element to the saxophone being there.” The orchestra plays its part as well – there’s even a pizzicato duet for two double bass players on one instrument, which replicates a day during the week they first met when Britten and Wulff were caught in the Sienna rain and ran for shelter sharing a mackintosh, each with one arm in a sleeve.

In My Dear Benjamin, Chan tells the story more or less in chronological order, but beginning with the last letter that Wulff wrote to Britten where he says: “In all my relations, whether love or friendship, your image was always present and never blotted out. When I lost you I lost half of myself, for you were my first friend, and the hours we spent together were the happiest and best of my life.” He then goes back to the beginning, where Britten writes his first letter to Wulff, who was 18 at the time. “Britten wrote and said, ‘I live in a windmill in Suffolk, would you like to come and visit me?’ says Chan. “And Wulff wrote a very cheeky reply back, à la Mae West, saying ‘I would love to come and have a look at your windmill.’ And he did.”

Although he says it is not in the song cycle, Chan references a moment when Britten plays Beethoven on the piano for Wulff at the Old Windmill, which was the weekend that he believes the relationship started to blossom. The enforced separation with Britten in New York and Wulff in Canada – the latter narrowly missed being on the SS Arandora Star, which was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland – meant that the letters increased in volume, but were often received out of order and censored by the Canadian authorities. “They are full of pining,” says Chan. “And when Wulff was in Canada he was reduced to writing to Britten for money to pay for things like toothpaste and haircuts.”

Wulff would go on to be the dedicatee in 1939 of Young Apollo, and the song Antique in the orchestral song cycle Les Illuminations bears the individual dedication “To K.H.W.S” (Wulff’s initials). Rimbaud’s text is deeply erotic: “Stained with brown lees, your cheeks are hollow. Your eye-teeth gleam. Your breast is a cithara, chords chime in your pale arms. Your pulse beats in that belly where a double sex sleeps. Walk, at night, gently moving that thigh, that other thigh and that left leg”. That apparently always mystified John Woolford who failed to see his younger self in the poem. However, Britten makes his feelings at the time fairly clear in a letter where he writes: “I love you, I love you more everyday. So there’s a declaration.” On his part, Wulff reciprocated in 1940 with: “The one person constantly in my thoughts and on my mind without fail was you. No one else occupied my heart, my mind or my body.”

The musical and romantic affair fizzled out when both had returned to England. Wulff changed his name to John and took the surname Woolford – the name of the woman he would eventually marry. “John joined the British military,” Chan explains. “He was in a special corps that was reserved for so-called enemy aliens – ‘The Queen’s most loyal enemy aliens’, they were called. The story ends with the two of them tacitly acknowledging that the relationship could not survive this incredibly long separation. They did see each other once, in 1942, but they acknowledged that they had both moved on.”

Chan’s greatest sadness is the fact that John Woolford died less than ten weeks before the Brisbane premiere of the work. Having worked tirelessly to get the permission of both authors – the Britten-Pears Foundation agreed that Chan could access the unpublished letters in the composer’s archive – the opportunity for one of the protagonists to hear the fruits of his labours would have been the icing on Chan’s cake. Nevertheless, Brisbane Festival audiences, and listeners to ABC Classic FM will get the chance to immerse themselves in this unique and remarkable musical love story.

My Dear Benjamin is performed alongside the Simple Symphony and the suite from Johnson Over Jordan at Brisbane’s QPAC on September 22.