Music blog

26 posts categorized "Events"

03 April 2014

Keeping Tracks - a one day symposium on music and archives in the digital age

Since October 2013 the British Library has been engaged in a six-month project investigating ways in which we can work with the fast-moving digital music supply chain, improve its relationship with the music industry and to help develop a Library-wide transition to acquisition of digital materials as part of its long-term Content Strategy. As part of this work a one-day symposium took place.

Keeping Tracks Poster

Keeping Tracks was devised as an opportunity for the British Library to talk about its collections and how we collect, preserve, conserve and give access to them, be they a 100-year-old wax cylinder or a newly minted digital file. It was also a great chance to gather different sectors of the industry – tech, labels, metadata, and archives – in one room to talk about an area that usually gets overlooked in traditional music industry conferences.

In the early spring sunshine of Friday 21 March delegates gathered from all corners of the globe and descended into the Conference Centre auditorium to be greeted by Curator of Popular Music, Andy Linehan. Andy set the scene and offered some historical context about where the British Library’s archives of recorded material had come from and handed over to colleagues Adam Tovell and Alex Wilson to talk about where they are going.

Andy Linehan - Introduction


AV scoping analyst Adam Tovell proceeded to discuss the study he has been engaged with for the last 12 months. Tovell and his team have been counting, quantifying and assessing the collections, analysing international standards and devising schedules to define best practice in the long-term audio-visual preservation of the Library’s 1.5 million recordings – before it’s too late.  The recording of his fascinating address can be found below

Adam Tovell - On shelves and clouds


Alex Wilson - Download into the BL


From the preservation of acetate and shellac, CDR and cassette to the collecting of digital sound and music Alex Wilson, Curator of Digital Music Recordings soon took to the lectern amidst a riot of noise and national anthems. This cacophonic audio clip was designed to illustrate the uphill challenge the British Library faces in 2014. Online sound and music is everywhere. It is the Library’s job as guardians of the nation’s audio memory to make sense of this. Wilson proceeded to show the first stages of a new collaboration that will improve the way we collect born-digital music and highlight other projects being investigated. The Q&A included some interesting questions surrounding Legal Deposit for recorded music and concerns of metadata ownership. Views from the floor regretted that this valuable material was without the benefits of statutory archiving and preservation that other material enjoyed.


Beggars Group

Keeping Tracks then opened its doors to the working music industry during a perceptive Q&A with Lesley Bleakley of the Beggars Group and Rory Gibb of music magazine, The Quietus. With over twenty years of experience in the music industry and representing a record label that is regarded as a leading light in digital delivery and archiving, Lesley Bleakley was perfectly placed to offer a fascinating insight. Moreover, she touched on the burgeoning relationship between Beggars and British Library Sound and Vision itself; the last year for instance has witnessed a mutual sharing of advice and guidance and music culminating in the delivery of the entire Beggars digital back catalogue in early 2014.

Lesley Bleakley and Rory Gibb - Beggars Archive


Post-lunch the discussion became truly international in scope as we invited representatives from peer organisation the National Library of Norway to take the stage. Whilst Norway shares many of the same archiving principles with British Library Sound and Vision it is differentiated in one crucial respect. Norway’s legalisation declares that all music recordings must be legally deposited at its National Library. Lars Gaustad and Trond Valberg discussed this and showed the auditorium their innovative new donation portal allowing users to deposit recordings online.

Trond Valberg and Lars Gaustad - Norway


Keeping Tracks then hosted a dynamic presentation from another peer institution. Creative Director at BBC Future Media, Sacha Sedriks shared his understanding of the guiding principles around music and metadata, the semantic web and the ecosystem that underlies their nascent BBC Playlister service. Through absorbing statistics and images Sedriks shone light on a pioneering new platform that only hints at how the truly immersive and interactive BBC Radio and Television offering of tomorrow will look like. 

Sacha Sedriks - BBC Playlister

Metadata underpins much of what we do here at British Library Sound and Vision and was a recurrent theme across the Keeping Tracks day. Hence it seemed only right to ask a leading music metadata supplier to the stand. Decibel Music Systems served up a talk in three parts: metadata from a market, data and technical perspective. Metadata is the glue that binds many systems together across the industry. As a result the Decibel presentation was followed by a lively and passionate Q&A which showed how important data is to making things (and people) click.

Decibel Music Systems - Dataphile


Whilst refreshments were guzzled, the auditorium was being tuned to a trans-Atlantic frequency. For the most ambitious strand of the Keeping Tracks we had invited UK based Music Tech Fest to share their keynote panel live via Skype from Microsoft Research Labs in Cambridge, MA, USA. The subject: developers, APIs and the music archive. Watched through the Skype-fuzz an energetic session ensued, moderated by Music Tech Fest head Andrew Dubber in the States and former Soundcloud man Dave Haynes here in the UK. Particular note should go to Microsoft researcher Jonathan Sterne who delivered an impassioned reflection on the nature of archiving and the internet which drew a round of applause in the London space.

Posterity Hacking

Music Tech Fest - Posterity Hacking


Lost Records

The end was nearly upon us. The final official session of Keeping Tracks was a panel chaired by Jennifer Lucy Allan of the WIRE magazine, stimulating discussion amongst a trio of label owners who specialise in lost music, records and reissues. Jonny Trunk (Trunk Records), Roger Armstrong (Ace Records) and Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recordings) proceeded to entertain the delegates with an informal, humorous, inspiring and sobering account in the wonderful art of releasing beautiful old music. Anecdotes, asides, controversies and reflections filled the hour and one suspects we could have talked well into the night.

Panel Discussion - Archives and music

Before the close of the day we invited respected author, journalist and Goldsmiths lecturer Mark Fisher to deliver his own personal take on what had gone before. Whilst it may have polarised some of the audience, Fisher’s lucid account of the 2014 digital space, music, memory, innovation and consumption sounded a stark clarion call to ring us toward the close.

Mark Fisher - Closing Words


The British Library would like to thank all those who presented, spoke, attended and asked questions at this inaugural Keeping Tracks symposium. We have been delighted with the feedback so far and would welcome any further suggestions, recommendations and donations for the future. If nothing else Keeping Tracks felt like a genuinely unique event (up) lifting the lid on a usually ignored, diverse set of issues and investigations about music and archiving in the 21st century. Long may these discussions continue...


All full presentations streaming here

All presentation slides displayed here

A follow up interview by Digital Music Trends is here

11 March 2014

Plainsong and Medieval Music Study Day at the British Library

The British Library is delighted to host this year's Annual Study Day of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, on Saturday 29 March 2014.

Open to all with free admission, this day will provide a major showcase of some of the important and exciting work currently being undertaken on the British Library's important collections of medieval and Renaissance music manuscripts.


The first session of the morning, starting at 10.30, will be devoted to Tudor manuscripts. David Fallows will present some of the exciting new discoveries he has recently made about the famous Henry VIII Book (Add. MS 31922, shown above). Thomas Neal will talk about Royal MS 8 G.vii, A Burgundian manuscript in early Tudor England, and Louise McInnes will speak about the Windsor carol book (Egerton MS 3307).


Before lunch, four speakers from the Old Hispanic Office Project at the University of Bristol will discuss various aspects of the liturgy and chant of the Iberian Peninsula in the early medieval period. Surprisingly, one of the largest collections of early Spanish chant manuscripts is found in the British Library, and this presentation by Emma Hornby, Elsa De Luca, Raquel Rojo Carrillo and Kati Ihnat will centre on some of these manuscripts.

In the afternoon, William Flynn will talk about an important but little-studied British Library manuscript of Hildegard of Bingen's writings, and two leading liturgical experts, Magnus Williamson and Matthew Cheung Salisbury, will give presentations about some of the sources of the Sarum Rite to be found in the Library's collections.

The day will conclude with an opportunity to see some of the manuscripts under discussion earlier in the day. Doors open at 10 for a prompt 10.30 start, and the event will finish by 4.30. The Study Day will take place in the Foyle Suite at the British Library Centre for Conservation, towards the back of the main Library building at 96 Euston Road. Lunch will be available in the Library's restaurant and café.

Attendance is limited to 60 people, and anyone wishing to attend is asked to register your intention to attend here:

For further details, and to download the programme for the day, please visit the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society website at Founded in 1888, the PMMS exists to promote the performance and study of liturgical chant and medieval polyphony, through the publication of editions, facsimiles and scholarly articles, and through educational and liaison events. This Study Day will also include the Annual General Meeting of the Society. New members are always welcome, and can join on the day. Membership includes a subscription to the Society’s twice-yearly journal and discounts on many of the Society's publications.


26 November 2013

Parthenia: an anniversary celebration

Four hundred years ago, the first attempt to print a book of music for keyboard was made in England. This landmark publication was Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. The British Library holds two copies of the first edition, and a further six copies are known to survive in other libraries around the world.

Title page of Parthenia
Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that ever was printed for the Virginalls. Shelfmark R.M.15.i.15.

Last night we celebrated the 400th anniversary of Parthenia's publication with a lecture-recital at the British Library, hosted in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Music. It was a sell-out event, and featured performances on three instruments from the time of Parthenia: the virginals (a delicate-toned keyboard instrument, pictured on Parthenia's title-page, above), the dulcimer and the Renaissance fiddle or lira da braccio.

Oliver Neighbour, leading scholar of the music of William Byrd and former head of music at the British Library, talked about the background to Parthenia's publication and the music it contains. He also shed light on some of the social niceties of the time. While the virginals would have been played at court and in high-ranking households, the dulcimer was considered a lower-class instrument.

The music in Parthenia was written by three of the greatest English composers then living: William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons.  Each was from a different generation, Byrd having been born in about 1540, Bull in about 1562 and Gibbons in 1583.  Colin Huehns, lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music, selected music by all three composers for yesterday's recital, in which the principal role was taken by Royal Academy of Music student Martyna Kazmierczak, playing the virginals. 

Although all the music in Parthenia was composed for solo virginals, Colin experimented with adding a Renaissance fiddle to the texture in some of the pieces.  It may not have been what the composers originally intended, but adapting music to suit all kinds of instruments was a very common practice in the 17th century, and the effect was certainly interesting. 

Martyna Kazmierczak and Colin Huehns
Martyna Kazmierczak (virginals) and Colin Huehns (Renaissance fiddle) with the dulcimer in the foreground

The final two pieces, played by Colin Huehns and Elsa Bradley respectively, were performed on the dulcimer.  Colin reprised Byrd's 'Preludium no. 1' from earlier in the evening, and it was interesting to hear how the work sounded on an instrument with a quite different sonority from the virginals.

The virginals used in the recital was an original Renaissance instrument kindly loaned by the Royal Academy of Music from their collecton of historic instruments, while the fiddle and dulcimers were modern replicas of early instruments. On display were a copy of Parthenia and several related items and, at the end of the evening, the audience had a chance to have a close look at these and at the musical instruments.

Why is Parthenia important?

Printers in Italy, Germany, France and England became highly proficient at printing music from moveable type during the 16th century.  But this kind of printing, in which each note - with its own staff lines  - sits on a separate piece of type, was not suitable for the fast notes and chordal writing found frequently in keyboard music.  Music for keyboard therefore continued to be transmitted in manuscript. The most magnificent example of these manuscripts is 'My Ladye Nevells Booke' (MS Mus. 1591), compiled by the scribe John Baldwin in 1591, which contains music by a single composer, William Byrd. 

My Ladye Nevells Booke
My Ladye Nevells Booke (f. 166r)

By the early 17th century, engraved music - created by engraving each page of music onto a metal plate and printing from this - was becoming more prevalent, and it was only a matter of time before an attempt was made to engrave complex keyboard pieces.  Here is a typical page of music from Parthenia:

Music by Orlando Gibbons from Parthenia
Music by Orlando Gibbons from Parthenia

The above runs of semiquavers would have been very difficult to produce using moveable type.

It is somewhat ironic, as Oliver Neighbour observed during his talk last night, that by the time such an innovative publication as Parthenia appeared, the high point in the development of English Renaissance keyboard music had passed.  However, interest in 16th-century keyboard music - and indeed in Parthenia - continued well into the 17th century.  The music was reprinted several times - in 1651 with a somewhat more demure female performer on the title-page.

The publication was then all but forgotten until the 19th century, when the enterprising Musical Antiquarian Society produced a new edition.  Since then, the music has been re-published in facsimile, in modern scholarly editions and in arrangements for other instruments, including recorders, flutes and keyboard and cello, and it has also been recorded many times. Four hundred years on, the music from Parthenia remains vibrant and engaging.

03 October 2013

English folksong at the British Library

Show and Tell 21Sept2013
Delegates of the Full English Folksong Study Day investigate the British Library's audio collections


Saturday 21st September saw the London leg of The Full English’s tour of Folksong in England Study Days, which took place in the British Library.

Renowned folklorist Steve Roud led the study day with a guest talk from Julia Bishop, Steve’s co-author of the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs who is also currently leading the project to produce the James Madison Carpenter Collection. See a full report by Scott Standing of the Full English's blogspot.


Show and Tell 21Sept2013 3
Some of the BL's Percy Grainger folksong transcriptions on view for the study day participants


British Library curators, Nicolas Bell (Lead Curator Western Music) and Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator World and Traditional Music) organised a 'show and tell', bringing out items from the collections that now form part of the Full English's digital archive, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams folksong transcriptions, plus related items such as newly acquired photographs of Percy Grainger and selections of folksong recordings including wax cylinders recorded by Vaughan Williams, many of which are available for listening online at BL Sounds.

05 September 2013

Folk song in England study day


Fare Ye Well, Lovely Nancy (from the George Gardiner Collection at the EFDSS and forming part of The Full English)

Learn more about England’s cultural heritage through folk song, from ballads to shanties. This study day -  to be held at the British Library on Saturday 21 September - explores the history, development and purpose of folk songs collected in England.

The day will be led by renowned folklorist Steve Roud with Julia Bishop - a superb opportunity to share their knowledge and insights into folk song and music. Steve and Julia are co-editors of the acclaimed New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Learn more about the day and how to book via the What's On.

The event forms part of The Full English, a project by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), and supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Folk Music Fund and The Folklore Society. The Full English includes the most comprehensive free searchable digital archive in the world. Ralph Vaughan Williams' manuscripts of folk songs and other works, which were deposited after the composer's death in 1958, have been digitised as part of the project.

Vaughan Williams didn't only note folk songs down on paper, he also recorded the performances. You can listen to 3 folk songs recorded on wax cylinders by Ralph Vaughan Williams on the British Library's Sounds website:

Turtle Dove, sung by David Penfold, recorded 1907

The Trees They Do Grow High, sung by David Penfold, recorded 1907

Fare Ye Well, Lovely Nancy, sung by George Lovett, recorded 1909 (only a few years after George Gardiner noted it down on paper as in the image above)

The cylinders are owned by the EFDSS but housed at the British Library on their behalf.

25 August 2013

Britten's Serenade

C1949 - At Crag House - photo by Roland Haupt. Image courtesy of www.britten100.orgAt the heart of our exhibition ‘Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten’ is the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Op. 31.  Arguably more than any other work in Britten’s output, the Serenade demonstrates his acutely sensitive response to the written word, to the extent that words and music often cohere with a natural simplicity that seems to encapsulate and transform the poetic intention.  The Serenade encompasses poetry by Keats, Tennyson, Blake, Cotton, and Jonson, together with an anonymous fifteenth-century text – each poem selected to fit an overall poetic conception that reflects on the approach of darkness as a metaphor for the journey from life into death.  It was composed in 1943, shortly after Britten returned to England from the US, and dedicated to the critic and novelist Edward Sackville-West (1901-65).  The work was first performed at the Wigmore Hall on 15 October 1943 by the great horn player Dennis Brain and the tenor Peter Pears. 

The Serenade opens with a prologue for solo horn, which at once sets a haunting tone for the work and introduces the instrument as an unspoken commentator on the sung text that follows.  For the first sung movement Britten selected four stanzas from the The Evening Quatrains by Charles Cotton (1630-87), which itself forms part of a cycle describing each part of the day: morning, noon, evening and night.  Cotton’s words appear in the 1689 edition of his Poems on Several Occasions, published in London by Hensman and Fox, a copy of which is on display in the exhibition.  The opening verse ‘The day’s grown old; the fainting sun / has but a little way to run’ sets the tone for Britten’s reflective setting, which is dominated by a descending musical theme echoed by the solo horn. 

William Blake, Sick RoseIn the second movement Britten’s music conveys the rapid shifts of emotion in Tennyson’s ‘Blow, bugle, blow’ from the narrative poem The Princess.  Here the sung text is punctuated by horn fanfares evoking the sound of a bugle echoing over an Arcadian landscape, an allegory for the inevitability of death followed by after-life.  The evidence of Britten’s manuscript demonstrates that he changed his mind about the title of the first and second movements: the original titles were ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Ballad’, but these were crossed through in red crayon and replaced with ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Nocturne’ respectively.  There were apparently no second thoughts concerning the title of the third movement, an ‘Elegy’ on William Blake’s famous ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’.  In this setting, which is dominated by the simple and unsettling motif of a descending semitone, the sung text is delivered to a sustained string accompaniment.  A lengthy introduction for horn and pulsating strings returns to form a suitably mournful postlude. 

Britten’s inspiration for the fourth movement was an anonymous fifthteenth-century poem, the Lyke-Wake Dirge, which continues the underlying theme of the Serenade by charting the journey undertaken by the soul from earth to purgatory.  Written in an old form of the Yorkshire dialect, the repetitive structure of the poem gave Britten the opportunity to create a setting that contrasts the jaunty rhythms of the vocal lines with an increasingly complex orchestral accompaniment – rather like a set of variations on a given theme. 

Ben Jonson, Cynthia's Revels, Act 5, Scene 1For the fifth movement Britten chose words from Cynthia’s Revels by Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a play first performed in 1600 which depicts Queen Elizabeth I as the virgin huntress Cynthia (elsewhere known as Diana). Britten selected the hymn, ‘Queen and huntress, chaste and fair’, from Act V (shown on the right in the edition published in London in 1601), allowing him to deploy the solo horn in hunting style, thus providing the work with a lively scherzo movement.  The final movement, however, marks a return to the reflective and intensely lyrical tone that pervades much of the work, with a setting of John Keats’s sonnet To Sleep.  Britten’s masterpiece ends with the strains of the solo horn, now off stage, its melancholy fanfare gradually disappearing into silence.  


09 July 2013

War and peace in Britten

This is the second of our posts highlighting some of the themes of the British Library exhibition Poetry in Sound: the Music of Benjamin Britten. Today, Britten's pacifism comes under the spotlight.

Britten developed an anti-war stance well before the outbreak of World War II, involving himself with the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s. The Union was formed in 1934 by Dick Sheppard, a popular Anglican priest, in response to the growing threat of war in Europe. It quickly became one of the most prominent organisations in Britain committed to peace, commanding the support of many writers and thinkers, including Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and Siegfried Sassoon. Britten and Michael Tippett were among the musicians attracted to its cause. During World War II, the Peace Pledge Union published booklets and leaflets encouraging people to shun the war and become conscientious objectors. This flyer was issued in about 1939.

Peace Pledge Union flyer
Peace Pledge Union flyer, YD.2007.a.1206.

Britten composed a marching song, Pacifist March, for the Peace Pledge Union. It appears to have been modelled on the political propaganda songs popular in mainland Europe. Britten intended it to be performed by two-part choir and orchestra but - although the words and music for the chorus were printed in 1937 - Peace Pledge Union members apparently disliked the piece, and it was quickly withdrawn. A rare surviving copy is on display in the exhibition. The words are by Ronald Duncan (1914-1982), author of a pamphlet entitled The Complete Pacifist. Duncan's lyrics begin with the lines 'Blood, mud and bitterness have been used in painting our history, That's been smudg'd with the stain of war. Empire we've stolen, swollen, Our imperial greed for more.'

In April 1939 a left-wing 'Festival of Music for the People' was held in London. It included a pageant for 500 singers and 100 dancers featuring the American singer Paul Robeson as soloist, a balalaika orchestra playing Russian tunes, music by the communist composer Alan Bush, and Britten's Ballad of Heroes. The Ballad, with words by W.H. Auden and Randall Swingler, was performed by 'Twelve Co-operative and Labour Choirs'. Britten had been horrified by the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War and wrote: 'It seemed natural to choose a piece which could express my sympathy with the beleagured Spanish Republic and honour a brave, unhappy people'.

Programme for the Festival of Music for the People, 1939
Programme for the Festival of Music for the People, 1939. LD.31.b.1980.

Britten left the UK for America just before the start of World War II, for which he was roundly criticised in the British press. An overwhelming longing for home led him back to England in 1942, where he faced a tribunal as a conscientious objector. In 1945, he gave two concerts with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the newly liberated Belsen concentration camp, an experience that would colour his later works.

The wartime destruction and subsequent rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral provided the impetus for Britten's War Requiem, which he composed for the reconsecration of the cathedral in 1962. In it the text of the Latin Mass of the Dead is interspersed with and transformed by the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Britten's powerful musical response to Owen's poems reflected his deep admiration for the poet. 'Owen is to me by far our greatest war poet, and one of the most original and touching poets of this century', he wrote.

Posted to France in 1916, Owen had returned to Britain in 1917, diagnosed with shell-shock. At hospital in Edinburgh he met fellow patient and poet Siegfried Sassoon, who later edited his works for publication. Owen wrote or revised most of his poems shortly before his return to France – where he was killed days before the Armistice.

On display is Britten's draft manuscript of his War Requiem, alongside one of the Library's literary treasures, a manuscript of Owen's poems in the poet's own hand. We have chosen to display his poem 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', which Britten used in the War Requiem and which, in its published version, opens with the following lines:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

The manuscript on display is an early draft of the poem, bearing annotations in the hands of both Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The manuscript reveals that Owen originally called the poem 'Anthem for Dead Youth'.

Wilfred Owen: draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen's first draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth. Add MS 43721, f. 54.

In our next exhibition-related post we'll be exploring the poems that inspired one of Britten's best-known works, his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

12 June 2013

Poetry in Sound exhibition: Britten and Auden in the spotlight

Following the launch of the new British Library exhibition Poetry in Sound: the music of Benjamin Britten, we’ll be putting the spotlight, on this blog, on some of the themes we’ve chosen to explore in the exhibition. I hope these posts will tempt you to come and discover the manuscripts, unpublished recordings, rare printed materials and photographs we’ve selected from our archives.

Britten (right) and Auden in New York in 1941
Britten (right) and Auden in New York in 1941. Courtesy of

At the start of the exhibition we focus on one of the most important of Britten’s early relationships: his friendship and collaboration with the poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973). Britten and Auden attended the same school, Gresham’s, in Norfolk, but Auden was six years older, so their paths didn't cross until the mid-1930s, when both began working for the General Post Office Film Unit. Britten confided in his diary that Auden ‘is a remarkably fine brain’. Auden was struck by Britten’s sensitivity in setting the English language to music.

Their most famous collaboration was Night Mail (1936), a GPO documentary depicting the Postal Special train puffing its way from London to Glasgow. There's a clip from the film in the exhibition (the final section, where Auden’s famous verse ‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border’ is heard to Britten’s evocative accompaniment of sandpaper, wind machine and a side drum representing the sound of the train). Alongside is a leaf from Britten’s handwritten score, showing those unconventional musical forces.

Although Britten is probably best known today for his operas, songs and music for children, he spent much of the 1930s composing for film, radio and the theatre. He was involved with the Group Theatre, an experimental theatre company which presented plays by T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, Auden and Isherwood and staged lectures, exhibitions and debates. Britten composed music for five productions between 1935 and 1938, including Auden and Isherwood’s plays The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier

Pamphlet about the Group Theatre (London: Group Theatre, 1938?). LD.31.a.2219.
Pamphlet about the Group Theatre (London, 1938?). LD.31.a.2219.

The Ascent of F6 features the song ‘Funeral Blues’, which, with its opening line ‘Stop all the clocks’, later became more famous as a poem - reaching an even bigger audience after its appearance in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Among the many rare or unique recordings in the exhibition is Britten and Auden’s song ‘Stop all the clocks’ performed by Peter Pears (tenor) and Britten (piano) in an unpublished test pressing made for Decca in 1955.

Auden and Isherwood travelled to the USA shortly before the outbreak of World War II, and Britten followed soon afterwards with Peter Pears. In America, Britten and Auden collaborated on a rather unconventional operetta, Paul Bunyan. The character Paul Bunyan was a giant lumberjack of American legend, who had a blue ox called Babe as a travelling companion. The operetta was first performed at Columbia University, New York in 1941.

Whether through annoyance at the Englishmen for attempting a work on such an all-American theme, or dislike of the piece itself, the critics were overwhelmingly hostile. ‘As bewildering and irritating a treatment of the outsize lumberman as any two Englishmen could have devised’, wrote Time magazine. A ‘musico-theatrical flop’ was the verdict of composer and critic Virgil Thomson.

The piece was seemingly much too long. Milton Smith, the director, told Britten’s biographer Donald Mitchell of his unsuccessful attempts to persuade Britten and Auden to make cuts. After the first night, he was begged to make the cuts he'd long been advocating but by then, he said, ‘the boat had sailed’. Paul Bunyan was withdrawn, and only revived in 1976, in a much amended version. In the Donald Mitchell Archive at the British Library, and featured in the exhibition, are some rare colour photographs of the première and a recording of part of it. Although the sound quality of the recording is quite poor, it gives us a tantalising glimpse of how Paul Bunyan sounded before Britten revised it, and how it was received in 1941. Even if the critics remained unmoved, it's clear from the laughter and applause that the audience members were enjoying themselves.

As well as composing for the cinema and theatre, Britten also provided music for nearly 30 UK and US radio productions in the 1930s and 1940s. The Rocking-Horse Winner was a radio play adapted by W.H. Auden and James Stern from D.H. Lawrence's short story of the same name, first broadcast by CBS in 1941. Britten composed eight numbers, which were conducted by Bernard Herrmann. The score doesn't seem to have survived, but the annotated script, on display, is preserved among the James Stern Papers at the British Library.

Britten’s last major collaboration with W.H. Auden is also one of his best-known pieces, the Hymn to St Cecilia, for unaccompanied chorus.  The pair worked worked together closely on the text while Britten was still living in the USA. In March 1942, homesick for England, Britten left America on a cargo ship to return permanently to the UK with Pears, and during the return voyage completed the music. It was first performed in November 1942, in a radio broadcast by the BBC Singers.  The first page of Britten’s autograph draft, on display, reveals that he originally called the work ‘Song for St Cecilia’.

Auden remained in the USA, and with the closing of this chapter in his life, Britten abruptly cut his ties with the poet. Like many people who upset Britten or outlived their usefulness, Auden became one of his 'corpses', former friends and associates who were banished from his life. 

In my next Britten post, I'll be focusing on the composer's attitude to war, his stance as a conscientious objector and his mighty War Requiem.

Music blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs