Working at the Coal Face – Britten on Film and Radio

Night Mail (c) unknown

With The Rescue and Britain in Wartime, which received its world premiere on 3 October, Listening to Britten nears the end of his music for film and radio – and of all the different forms of music heard so far in the composer’s output, this has been the most surprising and revealing.

When beginning the listening exercise I was aware of the existence of Britten’s music for film, principally through the wonderful Night Mail, but was not really sure of anything else. Yet as I have worked my way through the short suites and scores bringing life to films like The King’s Stamp, Coal Face and The Way to the Sea, it has become clear that here are blueprints for the composer’s mature style.

Reading the thoughts of Britten scholars John Bridcut and Humphrey Carpenter, and in particular Philip Reed’s booklet notes for the Britten on Film CD release on NMC, it is clear this area of music did a lot for Britten. It got him through his one of last major compositional blocks, thanks to the pressure of composing music to fit descriptions for a tight deadline. It gave him a sense of application and attention to detail that never seems to have left him. It introduced him to W.H. Auden, his creative muse in the mid to late 1930s, and it gave him a platform to express his own beliefs, such as the pacifist vehicle Peace of Britain.

In Britten’s own words, “There are great possibilities in music for the films but it must be taken seriously by the director and the composer, and used as an integral part of the whole thing – not just as a sound effect, or to fill up the gaps during the talking”.

Excerpts from Night Mail (1936) GPO Film Unit, part of DVD on the GPO film unit released by Panamint.

Composing for film fired Britten’s musical imagination. When required to paint a sonic picture of a train in Coal Face, he responded with an extraordinary array of instrumental techniques and implements, one example being a cart pulled over an asbestos surface! When describing a ship a cup of water was at hand, while a wind machine and a factory siren were in use for other GPO scores. And yet this is Britten we are talking about, not Varèse!

Much of the film music, particularly of the 1930s, carries the stamp of Berlin in the same decade. Kurt Weill especially looms large, and so do Berg, Schoenberg and Stravinsky to a lesser extent, but at the same time these works could only be by Britten. The opening of Coal Face, with its gruff chords on the piano, finds a match later in his career at the start of the Cello Sonata. The ensembles used for The Way to the Sea and Peace of Britain are not far removed from the chamber orchestra set-up in the War Requiem. The saxophone also assumes importance in Britten’s music at this time. The bigger orchestral scores for radio, such as Johnson over Jordan and The World of the Spirit give it greater prominence, pointing the way towards Britten’s use of the instrument in the Sinfonia da Requiem

It also shapes the character of Penelope in The Rescue. One wonders if Britten had found a saxophonist equivalent to Mstislav Rostropovich, or Julian Bream, what he might have achieved with the instrument.

Perhaps most of all the film music finds Britten in full characterisation mode. The ‘lurcher-loving collier’ of Coal Face, the slaves of Negroes, their plight made clear with the use of the Nunc Dimittis chant, or the Night Mail, rushing along urgently to get to Glasgow by morning. All are assigned extremely descriptive music, unwittingly preparing their composer for such song settings such as Winter Words, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and Rejoice in the Lamb.

Hans Keller, in his new book Britten – Essays, Letters and Opera Guides, states that ‘if and when film music embarks on musical history, Night Mail will be found – despite or indeed partly because of its elementary simplicity – among those legitimate points of departure from which so many of its successors have illegitimately departed’ Even now, it holds its place as one of the finest British film scores, past or present – but there is much more music besides that Keller didn’t know about when he was writing that.

The film output of Britten, then, offers so much – as a single listen to NMC’s Britten on Film disc confirms. To call this the most important Britten disc of the21st century might seem to be stretching things a bit, but it tells us more about the composer and his development than many a book can. In doing so it ensures we won’t hear Britten’s music in quite the same way again.

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