Music blog

19 December 2016

Benjamin Britten's A Boy was Born

Among the many Benjamin Britten works within the British Library’s collection of music manuscripts are the autograph vocal parts for one of his earliest choral works, A Boy Was Born.

Available to browse in full on the Digitised Manuscripts website, A Boy was Born consists of a series of choral variations with festive subjects. The first is a dialogue between Mary and Jesus, the second tells of the massacre of the innocents, whilst the third sets the text "Jesu as Thou art our saviour". The next concerns the three kings, before moving onto a setting of Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter" and concluding with a return to the original theme.

Britten composed this work during his studies at the Royal College of Music. It proved to be the last project he completed at the College, and these parts date from the same period, 1932-33. However, it was not until over a year later on 17 December 1934 that it received its first public performance.  This took place at the Mercury Theatre under the baton of Iris Lemare.

Benjamin Britten A boy was born coverTitle-page (with composer’s signature) from the boys’ part of A Boy Was Born, British Library Add MS 59798, folio 1 recto

This and the following images from Add MS 59798 are made available by kind permission of The Britten Estate Ltd and of Chester Music Ltd.

All publishing rights exercised.

Britten was not at all happy with the first performance. In his diary entry for 17 December, he reflected that it was ‘mostly very poor I’m afraid’, and added that he left immediately afterwards, ‘not being able to stand the strain.’ But to his surprise, A Boy Was Born immediately proved to be popular with audiences and performers alike.

In some respects, Britten's reaction was unsurprising, given that he was already known as a perfectionist even at this early stage in his career. Interestingly, the British Library’s set of parts provides further evidence of his attention to detail and tendency to revise: many of the pages feature numerous paste-downs where alterations have been made during the copying process. Although these could have been corrections of simple errors, it is significant that Britten mentions making ‘odd alterations’ to the piece with his teacher Frank Bridge in a diary entry for 11 May, 1933. Perhaps these amendments result from compositional revisions rather than from proof-reading?

Benjamin Britten A boy was born folio 1Paste-down corrections (third stave from the bottom) in Variation 1 (boys’ part), Add MS 59798, folio 1 verso 

However, the general accuracy and legibility of the parts indicates that Britten intended them for performance rather than a simple run-through. The occasion was probably an earlier broadcast performance on the BBC, which was given in February. After a rehearsal at the BBC, the composer mentioned in his diary that he was impressed by the choir’s first reading: ‘They sang it excellently considering they were sight-reading it from M.S. parts (copied at 5.30 in morning!). I am very pleased & bucked.’

Benjamin Britten A boy was born folio 11vAn example of Britten’s clear copying in the Soprano 1 part of ‘Herod’, Add MS 59798, folio 11 verso

Perhaps most intriguing is Britten’s admission that he had found the final variation extremely difficult to complete. Both in his diary and letters he mentions his difficulties in constructing the work’s finale, and the autograph score shows many revisions and crossings out. Yet in the parts, the final movement is the only one which has no corrections at all, either as paste-downs or in pencil.

Benjamin Britten A Boy was Born folio 34 verso

The last page of the final movement, ‘Noel’ (alto part), Add MS 59798, folio 34 verso

It is possible that Britten’s earlier agonising over this movement simply meant that he took greater care when copying the parts, or maybe that the notes were simply more present in his mind. On the other hand, it may shed some light on the young composer’s mode of working – perhaps this movement’s difficult inception meant that he felt it needed less attention and revision later on. Whatever the answers to these questions, this set of parts provide a fascinating record of one of Benjamin Britten’s earliest successes and given an insight into his working methods at the start of his career.

Isobel Clarke

Doctoral student, Royal College of Music, and PhD placement student, British Library Music Collections