Listening to Britten – King Arthur

Howard Pyle illustration from the 1903 edition of The Story of King Arthur and His Knights

King Arthur – Radio score. Incidental music for chorus and orchestra, made into a suite by Paul Hindmarsh in 1996 (19 March – 19 April 1937, Britten aged 23)

1 Overture: Fanfare – Introduction – The Lady of the Lake – Wedding March
2 Scherzo: Doom – Wild Dance – Death Music – Wild Dance
3 Variations: Galahad – Graal Music
4 Finale: Battle

Text D. Geoffrey Bridson
Producer Val Gielguid
Duration 25’30”

Audio clips

Love from a stranger can be heard on the NMC website, part of a release including film scores by Roberto Gerhard, Elizabeth Lutyens and Richard Rodney Bennett.

Background and Critical Reception

King Arthur was Britten’s first score for radio – the first of 28, it turns out! It was a large and ambitious project, set to a mammoth script by D.G. Bridson charting the life and times of Arthur and his court. Paul Hindmarsh, in his booklet note for the only available recording on Chandos, tells how Britten found the script ‘dull and derivative, and lacking in ‘realities and humanities”. He goes on to explain the process of adapting Britten’s music for a concert hall suite, drawing on the composer’s themes, ‘shortening some passages and adapting others to facilitate smooth joins and transitions’.

Understandably Decca decided not to include this adaptation in their Complete Britten box set.


Paul Hindmarsh deserves credit for fashioning a suite that hangs together convincingly, demonstrating Britten’s ever-increasing prowess in writing dramatic music for full orchestra. It achieves a realistic structure, and it probably helps that he jettisoned all ideas of using the chorus, given Britten’s marked dissatisfaction with the script. Although there are pointed references to Mahler and Shostakovich in the march of the first movement, and especially the faster music of the Wild Dance, there is quite clearly an individual style forming here.

From the opening fanfare this is bold music, and the first movement puffs out its chest with a theme cleverly manipulated from minor to major key. It is very strong soundtrack music, too, using plenty of bass and a widescreen sound.

The incessant drive in the Wild Dance, after its doom-laden brass call, carries all before it, but in the same movement the Death Music has a sharp poignancy. This must have been difficult to write, given that Britten’s own mother had not long passed away unexpectedly. The music for Galahad is more mysterious and exotic, with more modal writing, but then the graceful unisons in the Graal music, with violins and cellos doubling, sound uncannily like some of the writing in the introduction of the War Requiem, with an underlying disquiet. Again the music of Shostakovich hovers close by.

The fourth movement Battle scene also has some grand gestures, though here Britten reverts to older descriptive music such as Mahler and Tchaikovsky – remembering that Britten had a great love for the latter’s symphonic poems Francesca da Rimini and Romeo and Juliet. It is well orchestrated, and punchy – music that doesn’t sit on the fence!

Even though this isn’t 100% authentic Britten it is still well worth hearing, for it contains some vividly descriptive and often genuinely thrilling music.

Recordings used

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Hickox conducts a recording of drive and passion, the big-boned orchestration given an extremely sure footing from the Chandos engineers.


King Arthur can be found on this album of Britten rarities from Chandos, which includes Hindmarsh’s realisation of The World of the Spirit.

Also written in 1937: Bliss – Checkmate

Next up: Johnny

This entry was posted in Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – King Arthur

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Sword in the Stone | Good Morning Britten

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