Listening to Britten – Night Mail (a second listen)

Image from the BFI

Appraised by Simon Thomas, author of The Theatre of Carlo Goldoni. Simon also writes for He can be found on Twitter by clicking here

Night Mail – Incidental music for speaker, flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, percussion (suspended cymbal, sandpaper, side drum, bass drum and wind machine), harp and string quartet (violin, viola, cello and double bass) (22 November 1935 – 13 January 1936, Britten aged 22)

Title Music
Percussion Sequence
End Sequence

Directors Henry Watt and Basil Wright
Text of End Sequence W.H. Auden
Duration 5′

Film and Audio clips

For the music only, NMC’s audio player for the Britten on Film album can be accessed here, together with details on the disc. BFI have a brief piece on the film here

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s only forays into film scoring came early in his career, when he was still in his twenties and trying to make a name for himself. He joined the GPO Film Unit, where he began working with the poet W H Auden, who was to become a major influence on him both artistically and personally.

The Film Unit was set up in 1933, with a brief to make documentaries about aspects of British industry. Britten worked on The King’s Stamp and Coal Face in 1935 but the best-known of his collaborations with Auden at this time came a year later with Night Mail, which documented the busy overnight operation that whisked post from the South of England to Scotland.

Britten later said, “I don’t take film music seriously qua music,” and “I had to write scores for not more than six or seven players, and to make these instruments make all the effects that each film demanded.”

Apart from a brief opening piece that covered the titles, the most famous part of the score for Night Mail comes at the end of the 22 minute film, accompanying Auden’s elegiac poem which begins “This is the Night Mail crossing the border / Bringing the cheque and the postal order.”


Britten was clearly limited in expression with his film scores, in that he had to closely illustrate the, sometimes quite dull, subject matter (one film was called Men Behind the Meters!) but he worked wonders with the material. For Night Mail this meant both imitating the sound of a train and matching the strict meter of Auden’s rhyming couplets.

Despite the restrictions this imposed, he came up with a lively and inventive score that injects excitement into the “story” of a train hurrying through the dark night, getting faster and faster before slowing to a halt, triumphant with the successful conclusion of the night’s work. There’s a literalness to this and much of the film music Britten wrote but it doesn’t take away from its charm and inventiveness.

It’s scored for flute, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, harp, violin, viola, cello, percussion and wind machine and is an enjoyable evocation of machinery and countryside, which gives hints of the enormous descriptive power to come later in Britten’s career, in pieces such as the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.

Recordings used

Simon Russell Beale, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)

This 2006 recording has splendid sound, which showcases Britten’s music in a way that the original films, with their scratchy sound quality, cannot. Martyn Brabbins conducts excellent performances of the scores for Night Mail, Coal Face, The King’s Stamp, The Way to the Sea and a number of other films Britten worked on, with Simon Russell Beale providing a mellifluous narration.

Spotify / YouTube

You can watch the whole of Night Mail here

Night Mail can be heard here, the first three tracks of NMC’s Britten on Film album.

Also written in 1936: Rachmaninov – Symphony no.3 in A minor, Op.44

Next up: Three Divertimenti

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