Listening to Britten – The Way to the Sea

Painting (c) Brian Hogwood

The Way to the Sea – Incidental music for commentator, flute, oboe, clarinets, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, percussion, harp and piano (1 – 15 December 1936, Britten aged 23)

1 Allegro: Introduction
2 Andante maestoso: Romans
3 Andante maestoso: Alfred
4 Moderato: “There, is at this point of the haven”
5 Allegro: “The eighteenth century”
6 Allegro con fuoco: “Nelson has gone”
7 Lento e pesante: “169 trains a week”
8 “The line waits”
9 Piu lento: “Here is a harbour”
10 Slow: “We seek a spectacle”
11 Allegro molto – alla marcia

Director John B. Holmes
Text of The line waits: W.H. Auden
Duration 16′

Film and Audio clips

The entire film of The Way to the Sea can be seen on YouTube – part one and part two

For the music only, NMC’s audio player for the Britten on Film album can be accessed here, together with details on the disc. The BFI website has a comprehensive overview of the film.

Background and Critical Reception

As John Bridcut explains, cinema in the 1930s was a powerful form of communication, similar in its impact to the internet today. That explains why a picture whose initial aim was to portray ‘a royal progress to Portsmouth’, changed tack to become a piece about the need for the working masses to get away on holiday, usually by way of the train. The suggested way to do this was to use the line from London to Portsmouth, which had just been electrified.

Britten and Auden were pressed into action once again, but this was to be their final collaboration for the screen. Like the celebrated Night Mail, their subject was predominantly trains, but here the musical style is rather different. Britten indulges in some Tudor pastiche as the text meanders through a history of the British Navy and then Portsmouth, including references to Lord Nelson and Henry VIII.

Philip Reed’s detailed note for the NMC release tells of how the pastiche music was used ‘to deflate the visuals, many of which presented in an unorthodox manner’. Meanwhile Auden’s verse was an opportunity for him ‘to moralize and instruct in his own inimitable way’.


This is a curious score, and often feels overcrowded as Britten uses a lot of percussion. It is largely bright and ceremonial but curiously hollow in emotion, reflecting perhaps Reed’s observations of satire. While in a sense it builds on the success of Night Mail, in another sense it is a step back, which is entirely due to the pastiche.

Some of this is enjoyable – when the text states that ‘King Henry VIII has come to see his new fortress at Southsea’, Britten’s response is for expansive strums on the harp and elaborate woodwind trills. The text bursts with excitement when it announces that the train time between London and Portsmouth has come down to 90 minutes, with 169 steam trains a week – and the ceremonial music goes with this boasting, a grand description of the terminus following as the train waits for power. The urgency builds, as on the train the passengers, ‘seek the sea’. The brightly coloured finale is proud but almost excessively so. A private joke between Britten and Auden, maybe?

Recordings used

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

Again, an excellent performance, typical of the vibrant textures and abundant melodies that can be found on the Britten on Film album.


The Way to the Sea can be heard here, beginning at track 27.

Also written in 1936: Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet

Next up: Reveille

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One Response to Listening to Britten – The Way to the Sea

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

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