Listening to Britten – Night Mail

Image used with thanks to the British Postal Museum & Archive blog

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, while the film can also be seen as part of the British Library’s Poetry in Sound Britten exhibition.

Background and Critical Reception

Night Mail is regarded as the GPO film unit’s finest achievement, a picture that glories in the romance of sending mail overnight from London to Scotland. Key elements of its success were W.H.Auden’s verse, trimmed to the second so that it would fit Harry Watt and Basil Wright’s pictures. With the verse in place, Britten was able to prime what is regarded as his finest five minutes’ music for the screen.

In preparation for Night Mail, Britten and sound director Alberto Cavalcanti spent a rainy evening by the railway tracks in Harrow, listening to the trains as they went past. To reproduce these sounds in the studio at Blackheath, Britten employed an even more imaginative battery of percussion than for previous GPO films, using sandpaper, a wind machine (effectively a compressed air cylinder) and the backwards cymbal technique already tried out in Coal Face.

Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Britten talks through the creative process, reporting that Britten and Auden spent many hours together perfecting verse and music. Certainly Auden’s words are supremely evocative, and with a larger orchestra at his disposal Britten was able to render the music in almost exactly the manner and detail that he wanted.

In an illuminating piece on the British Postal Museum & Archive blog, Dr Scott Anthony talks about Night Mail’s ‘timeless relevance’.


Night Mail is a triumph, capturing the atmosphere and urgency of the late night postal service and, equally importantly, the potentially emotive contents of the letters being sent. There is a strongly romantic feel to Auden’s verse, considering the ‘letters for the rich, letters for the poor, the shop at the corner and the girl next door’.

Britten leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to describe the train musically, and hearing the Percussion Sequence before the End Sequence is particularly valuable as the train begins to get in to gear. As the film moves on the music builds urgently towards its grand culmination, the music builds to a final grand cadence in Britten’s ‘home’ key of C major, the letters delivered and about to be read. With Auden’s verse a hand-in-glove complement to the music, it is no wonder Night Mail is so highly regarded.

Recordings used

Simon Russell Beale, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Martyn Brabbins (NMC)
Nigel Hawthorne, Nash Ensemble / Lionel Friend (Hyperion)

The NMC version has the bonus of the brief Opening Sequence and descriptive Percussion Sequence. Both performances of the End Sequence ensure Britten’s inventive use of the instruments, and percussion in particular, is conveyed to the full.


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

This entry was posted in Film Score, Listening to Britten, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Listening to Britten – Night Mail

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

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