Listening to Britten – Men Behind The Meters

Image from the NGSA

Men Behind The Meters – Incidental music for flute, clarinet, percussion and piano (2 – 30 September 1935, Britten aged 21)

1 Title music
2 Andantino: “I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls”
3 Allegro moderato: 1935 Sequence

Director Edgar Anstey
Duration 3’30”

Audio clips

A clip from each of the three movements in Men Behind The Meters 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 Britten Thematic Catalogue provides the background for Men Behind The Meters, the second film in a ‘gas trilogy’ for the British Commercial Gas Association that started with Dinner hour and ended with How gas is made. Bayan Northcott’s note for the NMC is amusing, stating that the music was written to ‘enliven a tired historical account of the gas industry’. A lot of hot air, perhaps?!

Britten wrote music for all three between 2 and 13 September, revising them at the end of the same month. For the second movement he produced an arrangement of the Michael Balfe song I Dreamt That I Dwelt In Marble Halls.


At this point it is curious that Britten’s music ‘to order’ seems to have more spontaneity in composition than the admittedly superior music he was writing elsewhere. There is a freshness to the scoring and the melodic material, and a necessary compression to the structure, meaning each note and phrase has great importance.

The Balfe arrangement is very lyrical, unusually rich in its romanticism within Britten’s music at this point, and features some sensitively written solos for viola and cello. These appear on the recording despite the scoring of flute, clarinet, percussion and piano specified in the thematic catalogue.

Recordings used

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

As with the whole Britten on Film disc, performance standards, recording and presentation are exemplary.


Men Behind The Meters can be heard here, as part of that invaluable Britten on Film album from NMC.

Also written in 1935: Bing Crosby – Silent Night, Holy Night

Next up: Negroes

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