Image used with thanks to the British Postal Museum & Archive blog
The King’s Stamp – Incidental music for flute, clarinet, percussion and two pianos (1 – 16 May 1935, Britten aged 21)
Director William Coldstream
A clip from each of the eight sections of the score can be heard on the NMC website, which also provides details of the Britten On Film disc from which they are taken.
Background and Critical Reception
The King’s Stamp is a watershed work for Britten, the start of his contract with the General Post Office (GPO) to produce music for their films. The discipline of writing to cues, for reduced instrumental forces and with tight deadlines effectively jolted Britten out of the compositional block he had been experiencing in the first few months of 1935.
It is interesting to read both the background to the film on the BFI website, as well as the story behind the design of the stamps themselves, designed by Barnett Freedman, on the British Postal Museum & Archive blog. The first two pages of the manuscript score can be found as part of the Britten Thematic Catalogue entry on the piece.
John Bridcut recognises the importance of this period to Britten’s career, noting the composer was never to experience such a block again in his life as he got used to working under pressure in much less hospitable conditions. The King’s Stamp was pretty dry material to begin with, too, the whole procedure of design and production difficult to translate to a living, breathing musical score.
And yet…Britten managed it, with some very detailed play on the words that became a hallmark in future songs. In his excellent booklet note for the NMC release, Britten On Film, Bayan Northcott gives the examples where this occurs, citing a ‘rising arpeggio figure on a crescendo to represent the opening of a door’, and the ‘cascading sequential pattern as the designer runs down a staircase’.
These are new instrumental colours for Britten to be using, and although the restricted choices can make the music a bit dry at times there is much to admire, especially the clever use of percussion and chattering woodwind in the section The Machine Starts. Meanwhile Train Sequence is a Shostakovich-like march powered by the snare drum. The techniques Northcott mentions are subtly realised, cleverly upgrading the music from merely responsive to pictorial.
Even though the structure is fragmented, responding as it does to the changes up on screen, the melodies hang together attractively, and because of the brevity of some of the sections there is not a dull moment. There are brief moments of affectation, too, which is quite an achievement for a film score about stamps! The soft hues of Parliament, briefly glimpsed in a slow aside led by flute, are genuinely moving.
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)
Excellent performance, rhythmically very sharp, and ideally recorded in the CBSO Centre.
The King’s Stamp can be found as part of the invaluable Britten on Film album from NMC.
Also written in 1935: Hindemith – Der Schwanendreher
Next up: Coal Face