Listening to Britten – On the Frontier

On the Frontier – first UK edition

On the Frontier – Incidental music for male voice, chorus, two trumpets, percussion, accordion and piano (2 and 4 hands) (October 1938, Britten aged 24)

Excerpt – The Clock on the Wall (arr. by Daryl Runswick)

Text for vocal numbers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
Duration 4′

Background and Critical Reception

On the Frontier is a two act melodrama by the now-familiar partnership of Auden and Isherwood, and was dedicated to Britten on its completion. Britten supplied the incidental music for it, but very little currently survives in recorded form.

Paul Kildea talks of how Britten ‘did not consider this as real music’ , and includes his other incidental music work in that statement. Britten ‘was frustrated with himself for needing the work when he would have preferred to be writing his own music’.

He goes on to talk of the play as ‘a thinly veiled account of life under Hitler, a fictional war being waged against a neighbouring country’. It was Auden and Isherwood’s swansong, before they sailed to America in early 1939.


The short fragment that survives from On the Frontier is The Clock On The Wall, arranged by Daryl Runswick. It shows just how immersed Britten had become in the ‘Berlin style’ of his cabaret songs.

Once again the alto saxophone enjoys great prominence, though how much of this is down to Britten’s original and how much to the Daryl Runswick arrangement is not entirely clear. Either way it colours the exotic harmony, and the jazz inflections take it a long way from conventional English music of the time!

There are still some remnants of Britten’s more serious music here, for this is a passacaglia in everything but name, but this is a brief and intense postcard of Britten’s very endearing ‘popular’ style.

Recordings used

John Constable (piano), Beverley Davison (violin), Graham Ashton (trumpet), Chris Laurence (double bass), David Roach (saxophone), Gregory Knowles (percussion) (Unicorn-Kanchana)

Tastefully done!


Not available, but a very brief clip from The Clock on the Wall can be heard on the All Music website

Also written in 1938: Roy Harris – Symphony No.3

Next up: Advance Democracy

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