When Auden Met Britten

W.H. Auden in the NYRB gallery:

In the summer of 1935, Mr. John Grierson asked me to write a chorus for the conclusion of a G.P.O. documentary film called Coal-Face. All I now remember about the film was that it seemed to have been shot in total darkness and a factual statement in the commentary—The miner works in a cramped position. My chorus, he told me, would be set by a brilliant young composer he had hired to work for him, called Benjamin Britten. The following autumn I went myself to work for the G.P.O. Film Unit. What an odd organization it was. John Grierson had a genius for discovering talent and persuading it to work for next to nothing. There was Britten, there was William Coldstream, there was Cavalcanti, among others. Personally I loathed my job, but enjoyed the company enormously. The film which both Britten and myself worked on which I remember best was one about Africa which never got made because it turned out that there were no visuals. Our commentary was a most elaborate affair, beginning with quotations from Aristotle about slavery and including a setting of a poem by Blake. I wonder if Britten still has the score as there was some wonderful music in it.

What immediately struck me, as someone whose medium was language, about Britten the composer was his extraordinary musical sensibility in relation to the English language. One had always been told that English was an impossible tongue to set or to sing. Since I already knew the songs of the Elizabethan composers like Dowland—I don’t think I knew Purcell then—I knew this to be false, but the influence of that very great composer, Handel, on the setting of English had been unfortunate. There was Sullivan’s setting of Gilbert’s light verse to be sure, but his music seemed so boring. Here at last was a composer who could both set the language without undue distortion of its rhythmical values, and at the same time write music to which it was a real pleasure to listen.

More here.