Listening to Britten – Britain in Wartime

The Hallé Orchestra in Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Britain in Wartime – Incidental music for narrator and orchestra, made into a concert suite by Colin Matthews (August 1942, Britten aged 28)

Text Norman Dorwin
Duration 23′

Background and Critical Reception

Recently restored by Colin Matthews, and ready for its world premiere on 3 October 2013, this is a suite from a series of six wartime dramas by Norman Corwin. The object was to provide an overview of conditions in Britain in the Second World War for listeners abroad, particularly America.

It wasn’t entirely clear in the BBC Radio 3 announcement whether the suite comprised numbers from each of the six dramas, or whether this was, as the Hallé Orchestra note for the world premiere concert says, the fourth suite – Women of Britain in its entirety. Either way, it ‘focussed on the role of British women and their part in the war effort’.

It was during the recordings for the dramas that Britten met the young horn player Dennis Brain, and wrote a more elaborate part specifically for him to play.


‘War is not all sound and fury, it’s a question eating carrots instead of chocolate…making inferior cigarettes…staying at home and working til you’re tired to death’.

A snapshot of the narration for this set of propaganda aids, aiming presumably to raise the spirits of radio listeners. And how curiously timed, just three weeks after the Marin Alsop becomes the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, part of a fierce debate about sexism in classical music.

A military style march kicks off before the narration starts, then after the narrator has spoken of all the oil in the water, a strongly syncopated, swaying piece for orchestra proves more than a little disconcerting. Then there is a barely disguised reference to Rule, Britannia!, as Britten moves rather closer to the style of Elgar than one might expect.

Britten finds music of greater delicacy once women are mentioned, the score less obviously telegraphed. It is perhaps surprising he doesn’t use the alto saxophone here – maybe one wasn’t available – as this was an instrument he was particularly fond of at the time. What he does use is a cavernous glissando on the brass to depict a downward running escalator in a tube station in London, then a slightly sinister movement in the strings to paint an arriving train.

Overall this suite was a little disjointed, which is to be expected with the narration breaking up the musical numbers, but its aim and doughty mood came across clearly. Britten shows his flexibility in orchestral writing such as this, writing in a much more conventional form but keeping bits around the edges that remind us he was headed towards Peter Grimes, He is, whatever the language, able to connect with the man or woman on the street as he writes.

The last word should go to the dryly effective narration. ‘She walks in beauty like the night! Maybe she does, but the woman of Britain walks in war dress and does fire guard duty during the night!’

Recordings used

No recordings as yet – but this was the cast for the world premiere concert, given on BBC Radio 3, and will also be used on the forthcoming recording on NMC:

Samuel West (narrator), Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder

Samuel West read with great conviction and clarity, his affinity with Britten and his situation abundantly clear. Using an American accent in the way he did was a calculated risk, but it was one that seemed to work. The orchestra responded well to a score that looks to keep a purposeful and bright view of things, and they managed to convey the idea that this might be a slightly empty notion at heart, especially in the references to Rule, Britannia.


Not available – but the score can be heard for the next week on the BBC iPlayer.

Also written in 1942: Poulenc – Chansons villageoises

Next up: Festival Te Deum, Op.32

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

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – Britain in Wartime

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

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – In memoriam Dennis Brain | Good Morning Britten

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