Listening to Britten – Negroes

negroes
Image from the BFI

Negroes, or music for the film God’s Chillun – Incidental music for commentator, soprano, tenor and bass soloists, tenor and bass chorus, oboe, percussion, harp and piano (2 September – 23 October 1935, Britten aged 21)

Title Music
1 In the middle ages
2 Then the Portuguese and Spaniards
3 At the mouth of the Senegal
4 To sail from Africa to Jamaica
5 The more advanced thinkers in Europe
6 Still at their accustomed hour
7 Coffee from the Blue Mountains

Editors Max Anderson, Rona Morrison, Gordon Hales
Text W.H. Auden
Duration 14′

Film and Audio clips

The entire film God’s Chillun can be seen on the Colonial Film website, together with a synopsis and context. For the music only, NMC’s audio player for the Britten on Film album can be accessed here, together with details on the disc.

Background and Critical Reception

Negroes is an original conception by Britten, Auden and the GPO film unit, an ambitious project to look at the Caribbean’s development from the abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century to its rich production line of sugar, cocoa and bananas.

In the event the film was altered somewhat and its name changed to God’s Chillun. The GPO film unit had to postpone the project due to financial reasons, but the picture was finally released in 1938. Britten and Auden wanted a half-sung, half-spoken delivery for the commentator, but the final picture was spoken only.

For his source material Britten transcribed some West Indian themes from gramophone records, but as Bayan Northcott notes in his notes for NMC’s Britten on Film there is plainsong here too in the form of the melody of the Nunc Dimittis, which accompanies the sorrowful descriptions of slavery.

Thoughts

A curious concoction of styles that can at times feel rather awkward. The main theme is distinctive but feels a bit hackneyed, as if it needs a jazzier instrumentation. While the singing of the male chorus is moving at times it can all feel a bit too English, especially with the inclusion of the oboe and cor anglais.

There is a lot going on here – not so much with the percussion, but with different vocals and melodies that crop up together, left, right and centre. As a result the quieter periods of reflection, such as the languid harp line introducing Still at their accustomed hour, stand out more effectively as moments of purity.

The half-sung manner of commentary takes a little while to get used to but is ultimately effective, especially as Auden’s text is typically incisive.

Britten’s treatment of his source material is sympathetic, his response to the text having some nice pictorial elements, and the use of percussion is once again subtle and inventive. The deployment of the Nunc Dimittis chant melody is particularly powerful, followed by a cor anglais lament that sounds like Stravinsky.

Recordings used

Mary Carewe (soprano), Daniel Auchincloss (tenor), Adam Green (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

The forces make commendable sense of the more crowded passages of Britten’s writing. Adam Green’s solos are especially sonorous, and the mail chorus sing with impressive clarity too.

Spotify

Negroes can be heard here, as part of that invaluable Britten on Film album from NMC.

Also written in 1935: Louis Prima – The Lady In Red

Next up: When you’re feeling like expressing your affection

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One Response to Listening to Britten – Negroes

  1. Pingback: Working at the Coal Face – Britten on Film and Radio | Good Morning Britten

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