Thursday 23 October 2014

The radicalisation of Benjamin Britten

One Saturday morning in April 1935 Benjamin Britten, aged 22, received a call out of the blue inviting him to meet 'a certain film impresario, M. Cavalcanti' over lunch near the General Post Office Film Unit's small studio at Bennett Park in Blackheath. There he was introduced to William Coldstream and signed up on the spot to work on a score for a documentary short called The King's Stamp. The young composer’s diary entries give us an idea of how exciting the transition from his family home in Suffolk to cosmopolitan Soho must have been. We have only to compare two of Britten’s diary entries, exactly one year apart:

4 October 1934
Walk - shopping - & then write all morning - with a cold and very rough & dangerous (strong currents) bathe before lunch. Mrs Chamberlain comes to lunch to talk over matters abt. Orchestra. K. Mead comes to tea, after which we play a four at tennis on Clyffe Court with Laurence and K. Gillespie. Too windy to play seriously but fun.

4 October 1935
The War [in Abyssinia] continues, enormous number of casualties – Abyssinian reverses – to general sorrow. So [No] signs of League activity as yet.  Still enormous excitement – esp. around Soho. I have lunch with a German Jew refugee – Robert Turner, a very intelligent communist – who has some interesting projects ahead.

A third diary entry comes from December that year:

Write a long letter to Mrs Chamberlain […] in defence of Communism – not a difficult letter to write! It has shocked a lot of people that I am interested in the subject!

The reaction of Kertsy Chamberlain, founder of the Bungay Orchestra, can be readily imagined. Britten was at the time becoming increasingly committed to Socialist causes, under the influence of another 'very intelligent Communist' called Montagu Slater. Being politically engagé (to use a common phrase of the period) was a hallmark of young artists and intellectuals, and this tended to express itself in commitment to left-wing causes and Pacifism. Britten, under the initial influence and tutelage of the composer Frank Bridge, would become a lifelong and rather ferocious Pacifist, retaining this commitment long after his leftish political sympathies had waned. The G.P.O. Film Unit was almost entirely staffed by left-leaning ideologues, although it was far from being the Bolshevik hotbed feared and derided by hostile critics in the press. It wasn’t only the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe that prompted a predominately left-wing response among the intelligentsia, although subsequent writers have understandably tended to focus on this. There were  many other subjects for political debate: the Japanese position in Asia, the Italian incursion in Africa (as noted by Britten), crises in the Middle East, the rise of the Soviet Union, the failures of the League of Nations, the slump in the world economy and the dismal state of things in Britain where unemployment exceeded three million – all were the concern of progressive thinkers and the cause of ‘enormous excitement – esp. around Soho’, the most cosmopolitan district of London. International politics and the fate of Europe were urgent, tragic and exciting areas to investigate, particularly by a generation with less of an interest and less of a stake than their forebears in the Empire and its overseas Dominions. There was a widely-shared assumption, especially among the young, that any hope for progress in the industrial nations lay in the development of the working classes as active and informed participants in the democratic process. This was a challenge to Establishment thinking, a challenge taken up by Grierson and members of the Film Unit.

As a film composer Britten developed the technique of onomatopoeic percussion – as in the clatter of saucepans and heard when a cartoon character tumbles down a staircase. His films were almost all fully-scored, with a direct match between image and music, and he was adept at pastiche, moving swiftly and easily between between highbrow and popular sources. 

It may be hard to believe that everything we hear on the Coal Face soundtrack, apart from the voices, is scored by Britten and recorded in the GPO’s small Blackheath studio. Every clank and clatter and rattle is scored using conventional percussion instruments and chains, drills, sandpaper, sheet metal, asbestos, whistles and so on. The clip-clop of the carthorse is of course produced by coconut shells, but these shells, Britten specified, should be of different sizes.

One might think that all this apparatus has more in common with a film studio sound effects department. Jude Brimmer has noted the ‘cartoonish’ quality in the piano arpeggio that accompanies a shot of the artist Barnett Freedman descending a staircase in Britten’s first film score, The King’s Stamp. Britten's approach is indebted to existing techniques deriving from silent film accompaniment, sound cartoons, the European avant-garde and other established cinematic conventions. Like his collaborator Auden, Britten was adept at co-opting public commissions into his own creative agenda and his genius has served to obscure the mainstream sources he freely exploited. He has sometimes been described as the originator of musique concrète, anticipating by fifteen years Pierre Schaeffer’s developments in the late 1940s, and while this may be overstating Britten’s particular achievement, we should bear in mind that he is adapting long-established techniques.

Britten’s Coal Face score is for a commentator; whistler; chorus (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone); percussion (tambourine, suspended cymbal, side drum, bass drum) and piano. For the most part the spoken commentary is meticulously scored, which would account for Slater’s rather uninflected delivery, as he is under considerable constraint in matching his words to the music. It is still hard to believe that all the non-verbal sounds we hear throughout the film are scored by Britten, whose uncanny skill in creating appropriately ‘realistic’ noises in the studio called for an extraordinary percussion score, thus:

1  side drum, block, triangle, cymbal, bass drum, gong.
2  chains, 2 coconut shells, large drill, cup in bucket of water, sandpaper.
3  sandpaper, trip gear, notched wood and wooden stick, sheet of metal and wooden mall
4  wooden whistle, small cart on sandy asbestos, small drill, rewinder, hooter, chain.

Such innovations reflect Britten’s particular genius for conjuring up suggestive and convincing aural landscapes, a random example from much later in his career being the moment in Death in Venice when the powerful ferryboat engines thunder into life. At one point in Coal Face the recorded sound of a struck cymbal is reversed to achieve a whooshing effect, intended to accompany of shot of a speeding train (but disappointingly out of synch by several seconds in every print I have seen). Britten took this idea from Jean Vigo’s surrealist short Zéro de conduite (1933), which famously included a slow motion procession of rebellious schoolboys accompanied by conventional music played backwards on the soundtrack. He saw the film at a screening in Soho Square on 31 May 1935 and his diary entry that evening praises it as ‘a perfect masterpiece, a revelation in many ways.’

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