Britten on Record: Balinese Ceremonial Music

Britten on Record: Balinese Ceremonial Music (Pearl)

Benjamin Britten, Colin McPhee (pianos)

Studio recording: New York City, 1941

1 Pemúngkah (Overture to Shadow-play)
2 Rébong (Love music from Shadow-play)
3 Gambangan (Intermezzo)
4 Lagú Delêm (Music from Shadow-play)
5 Tabú Telú (Ceremonial music)


Background and Critical Reception

The booklet note for one of Britten’s rarest recordings describes how they are unlisted in major discographies, ‘learned of accidentally from a record store supplement that listed ‘Recordings of Unusual Interest’.

The music, composed by McPhee, took as its lead the research he completed in Bali between 1934 and 1936, and was recorded with Britten for the record company arm of the publisher Schirmer in 1941.

Colin McPhee does not get much coverage from Britten scholars, but it is clear he opened Britten’s eyes and ears still further to music of other cultures, and this recording would have laid a strong foundation for Britten’s own trip to Bali with Peter Pears in 1956.


This is the earliest instance of Britten on record playing another composer’s music that I could find, and it is a fascinating aural document of a period of his life where his musical ears were truly opened. As his compositional career progressed so the music of Bali played an important role, particularly for characterisation or dramatic purposes in his operas. Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice and Curlew River all contain striking references to Balinese musical language, as does The Prince of The Pagodas to an even greater degree.

All can be traced back to the music of this compelling set of five pieces, where Britten and Colin McPhee play as one. You would indeed be hard pressed to note this as a recording made by two persons, such is the unanimity of attack and the understanding of the melodic inflections. The music itself looks beyond Britten to the works of Philip Glass, which have similar attributes of repetition and melodic language, but it is clear from this that Britten instinctively understood the music.

The recording is scratchy but well restored by Pearl, and its historical significance far outweighs any sonic drawbacks.


Unavailable – though three sections of the Balinese Ceremonial Music as played by Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow can be found as tracks 12-14 on their Orientale album.

Also recorded in 1941: Glenn Miller – Chattanooga Choo Choo

Next up: Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge

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One Response to Britten on Record: Balinese Ceremonial Music

  1. garethhevans says:

    Fascinating. You are very thorough!

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