The British Library Explores “Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten”

As part of the Britten 100 celebrations taking place all over the world, this new exhibition explores the literary, political and historical inspirations behind some of Benjamin Britten’s greatest works, providing a rare opportunity to see exhibits drawn from the British Library’s world class music collections. Alongside handwritten drafts of some of Britten’s best known compositions, including The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra acquired last year by the British Library, Poetry in Sound features some of Britten’s rarely seen manuscripts and unpublished Britten recordings from the Library’s Sound Archive.

Curated by Rupert Ridgewell, Sandra Tuppen, and Jonathan Summers, curators of the British Library’s music collections, Poetry in Sound, displayed in The Folio Society Gallery, explores the poetic, literary and musical influences on Britten’s work through the composer’s handwritten manuscripts, as well as photographs, letters, first editions and unique sound recordings, showing how such literary greats as William Shakespeare, William Blake, W H Auden, Wilfred Owen and Henry James, among others, have had a direct impact on his most celebrated works.

On display for the first time is the draft score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, acquired last year by the Library, which reveals the astonishing fluency with which Britten was able to construct a large-scale work. The manuscript is displayed alongside Wilfred Owen’s first draft of his poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, one of several Owen poems that Britten incorporated into his War Requiem, a signed manuscript of Britten’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a programme for the first performance of Gloriana at the Royal Opera House on 8 June 1953 as part of the official Coronation festivities, which returns to Covent Garden in June this year for the first time since the original production.

Rarely heard sound recordings in the exhibition include an unknown live recording from the first production of Paul Bunyan, accompanied by photographs of the little known 1941 production at Columbia University in New York.

Curator Rupert Ridgewell says: “We are delighted to be able to share such important artefacts, many never before seen, from the British Library’s extensive collections during Britten’s centenary year. Britten’s work spans almost every musical genre, from opera and string quartets to film music and solo songs, and this exhibition explores how literary and poetic influences shaped his development as a composer, which we hope will show him in a new light.”

The exhibition coincides with the digitisation of all of the Library’s Britten manuscripts, which are now available to view on the British Library website (via www.bl.uk/manuscripts), allowing them to be viewed anywhere in the world, which will be a fascinating resource for musicians, performers, scholars, and music-lovers.

The exhibition also provides the first opportunity to experience a new app, created by the Britten-Pears Foundation to introduce a new generation to the orchestra and to the music of Benjamin Britten. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten app, which will become widely available on iTunes in mid June, features illustrations by award-winning artist Sara Fanelli, a specially-recorded complete performance of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra from Sir Mark Elder and the Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra, creative games, a chance to compose, archive photographs, digitised pages from Britten’s original manuscript, an interactive score and unprecedented insight into the instruments of the orchestra and their players.

Poetry in Sound is accompanied by a fantastic series of music events this summer including a performance of key Britten works by The Turner Ensemble in the British Library’s striking entrance hall, a series of talks on the prolific composer and his works, with speakers such as Paul Kildea, and a specially formed ‘Friday Afternoon Choir’ will perform ‘Friday Afternoons’, Britten’s much-loved suite of children’s songs. The choir will be formed of members from three of Camden Music Services’ Choirs; The Camden Youth choir, Camjam Voices and The New Foundling Children’s Choir.

As well as drawing on Britten’s own manuscripts, Poetry in Sound includes material from several musical archives recently donated to the British Library. The archive of Britten’s biographer, Donald Mitchell, was acquired in 2009 and includes eye-witness reports and memories of people who worked with Britten; the papers of the film composer and music director Muir Mathieson, acquired in 2011, which includes photographs and documents relating to the film Instruments of the Orchestra directed by Mathieson, and the Malcolm Sargent archive — a vast collection of the conductor’s correspondence.

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