Coal Face – Incidental music for commentator, whistler, chorus (SATB), flute, piccolo, two clarinets, percussion and two pianos (29 May – 19 June 1935, Britten aged 21)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti
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
Coal Face is Britten’s second commission from the GPO film unit, the sound for a picture regarded by the BFI as ‘their first influential film’. The background to the film on the BFI website reveals something of a social commentary, and it tends to get greater praise than the music used within, despite enhancements from the words of W H Auden, assigned to the chorus in the score.
This marks the first collaboration between Britten and Auden, though they knew little of each other at the time. Auden’s contribution to the verse includes ‘O lurcher-loving collier’, set for female chorus and described memorably by John Bridcut as ‘a gleaming moment amid the subterranean gloom’.
Philip Reed has contributed a significant chapter about Britten’s score for the film, part of the Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten – essential reading for anybody interested in the composer’s endeavours in this discipline.
Paul Kildea details the instruments Britten made out of raw materials – the ‘teacups on string’, with children instructed to hit them with wooden spoons, evoking the sound of fat raindrops. Bayan Northcott, in his notes for NMC, also talks about Britten’s innovative use of a backwards recording of a cymbal, creating the effect of a train going through the tunnels.
Musically, Coal Face builds on the potential of The King’s Stamp, a more fluent piece of writing that finds Britten now responding very positively to the pressure of a deadline. Indeed for this production he was much more ‘hands on’, involved in the script and editing processes, and the impression is that he did not miss a single opportunity to use a descriptive musical tool or two.
The start is pure Britten as we might know it, tentative piano chords underneath the chorus the probe with ever greater urgency. The descriptive musical writing really kicks in, with the marching boots of the night shift arriving for work, the soporific humming and whistling of the miner as he stops for lunch at 1:30am and the rat-a-tat of the drum depicting the electric coal cutter, moving along the seam. Then there is the excitement of the ascent to the surface, the end of the shift, and temporary freedom from the claustrophobia.
Britten’s original use of percussion is well ahead of its time, the backwards cymbal for the train a technique that gets frequent use in pop music to this day, while short effects such as the groaning of a big ship are incredibly vivid. The words can be sinister at times, the chorus particularly chilling when ‘sotto voce’.
Even without the images, Coal Face presents a vivid picture of what mining life was like.
Simon Russell Beale (narrator), Daniel Auchincloss (tenor), Adam Green (baritone), Mike Flower (whistler), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)
A performance full of strong imagery but also one of claustrophobia, the listener coming up for air after the 12 minutes is over.
Coal Face is part of the invaluable Britten on Film album from NMC, beginning at track no.43.
Also written in 1935: Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Next up: Suite for violin and piano, Op.6