Listening to Britten – Telegrams

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Telegrams – also known as 6d Telegram or Sixpenny Telegram. Incidental music for boys’ voices, flute, oboe, clarinet, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, cymbal and side drum) and piano (11 – 15 July 1935, Britten aged 21)

Director Donald Taylor
Text possibly by W.H.Auden
Duration 2’30”

Audio clips

A clip from Telegrams 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

A third film score from Britten, this time a very short affair. The complete score of this picture postcard can be seen through the website of the Britten Thematic Catalogue, while details behind the film can be found on the BFI website. The text is thought to be Auden’s, but there is no great certainty behind the claim, as it predates his time with the GPO film unit.

Britten was paid ten pounds for his endeavours – but had to pay others from that – leading to resentment about underpayment for both Auden and himself, and because of technical faults with the recording the film was not shown until 1939.

The score gets next to no coverage from Britten scholars, though Bayan Northcott, in his notes for NMC, describes how the music mimics Morse code from the outset.


Britten continues to show his aptitude of writing well for boys’ voices, with a colourful accompaniment that implies he is still something of a kid in a sweet shop with all the percussion available to him! Another potentially dry subject comes alive in a very short score that proves to be charming and energetic, with the winning hook ‘send the wire’ an incredibly catchy one, delivered to the accompaniment of a rat-a-tat side drum.

Recordings used

Choir of King Edward’s Boys School, Birmingham, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

The boys sing this really well, with clarity and energy, picturing the speed of delivery Britten was trying to evoke.


Telegrams can be heard here, part of the invaluable Britten on Film album from NMC.

Also written in 1935: Honegger – Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Next up: Rossini Suite (The Tocher)

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