Benjamin Britten: Poetry, Politics, and Sound
Benjamin Britten, one of the best-known British composers of the twentieth century, began his prolific career in the 1930s by composing scores for documentaries produced by the General Post Office Film Unit. The job, which was sponsored by the British government, allowed him to showcase his creativity--in one film, for example, Britten recreated the sound of a train going through a tunnel by recording a cymbal, then reversing it. It was during this time that he crossed paths with W. H. Auden, an encounter that resulted in several collaborations between the composer and the poet.
Among these joint projects was Our Hunting Fathers in 1936, an orchestral song cycle that lamented the hunting of animals and the destruction of nature. Paul Bunyan followed in 1941, an opera based on the legendary American giant lumberjack, and Hymn to Saint Cecilia was written in 1942, a choral work based on three poems by Auden, each followed by an invocation to Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Incidentally, Britten was born on St. Cecilia’s day, on November 22, 1913.
But Britten’s most celebrated melding of poetry and music was the large-scale composition of six movements, War Requiem, performed in 1962 for the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, built to replace a cathedral destroyed by bombs during World War II. Britten wrote the piece for three soloists, a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys’ choir and organ. He used the Latin text of the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, along with nine poems of Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet who died just days before the signing of the 1918 Armistice. The somber and powerful work, which expressed the composer’s anti-war sentiments, was well received by critics and audiences alike.
In 1989 director Derek Jarman produced the film War Requiem, transposing images of war and horror against the backdrop of Britten’s music. Sir Lawrence Olivier made a cameo appearance--his last role on film before his death--as an old soldier recalling memories of war. "Jarman has added visuals so intense," wrote Joseph McLellan of the Washington Post, "that this is likely to be the ultimate embodiment of the idea [of war] until someone develops a technique for recording and playing back physical sensations other than sight and sound: the impact of a shell exploding a few yards away; the feel of mud everywhere; the taste of blood coughed up from a blood wound."
Britten’s other important works include numerous vocal, orchestral, and chamber pieces such as Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and Cello Symphony, as well as the operas Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Death in Venice.