Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]