Britten and W. H. Auden: from Paul Bunyan to Hymn to St Cecilia

Composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and poet Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–1973) first met in the summer of 1935 when they collaborated on Coal Face, an experimental documentary film about the mining industry produced by the GPO Film Unit.

The theme of Auden’s overwhelmingly articulate and intellectual capacities as compared with Britten’s perception of himself as a muted and inarticulate musician was to prove a leading theme in more senses than one. Britten was never entirely to rid himself of a lack of self-confidence and feelings of inferiority, especially where Auden was concerned. It was a deep-seated uncertainty which may have well made its own contribution to the eventual disintegration of the friendship in the post-war years.

All the odder this, as in one respect, at least, Britten and Auden were astonishingly well matched: each possessed a prodigious technical virtuosity which enabled him to turn his hand virtually to any form of verse or music. Whether it was popular song, parody, or the most elaborate and complex of inventions (whether the linguistic means were words or notes), both Britten and Auden, seemingly at the drop of a hat, could summon up the appropriate ‘voice’.

Auden also encouraged Britten, who had difficulty in freeing his feelings sufficiently to allow him to give physical expression to his sexuality, in accepting his homosexuality. Auden, who had no such problem, clearly led the attempt to ‘unfreeze’ the young composer, to argue him into accepting his own sexual constitution, and more importantly, perhaps, to learn to love and to give himself as part of that experience.

When Auden joined the GPO Film Unit later in 1935, he and Britten worked closely on several further films, the most celebrated of which is Night Mail with its celebrated final sequence ‘This is the night mail crossing the border’ set so atmospherically by Britten, and cemented their friendship with projects such as the orchestral song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. Having quickly made his reputation as a composer of inventive and effective music for the politically conscious experimental documentary film movement, Britten found himself in demand for left-field theatre companies such as the Group Theatre, founded in 1932 by the dancer Rupert Doone and others, and the politically overt Left Theatre, where he encountered Montagu Slater, later librettist of Peter Grimes.

Auden was also involved with the Group Theatre: the company staged his Dance of Death in 1934; and in 1937 they mounted his and Christopher Isherwood’s play, The Ascent of F6, with incidental music by Britten. Two numbers from the F6 score – the ‘Cabaret Jazz Song’ and the ‘Blues­’ – reveal Britten’s assimilation of popular musical idioms of the day. The ‘Blues’ is a powerful setting of Auden’s evocative lyric ‘Stop all the clocks’ (made popular by its inclusion as a eulogy in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) of which Britten was justly proud: later in 1937, he rearranged it as one of his four Cabaret Songs (all with texts by Auden).

The partnership blossomed professionally and personally. In 1936, Auden selected and contributed to the text for Britten’s major orchestral song-cycle, Our Hunting Fathers, premiered at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and the following year they collaborated on two BBC radio features, Up the Garden Path, deemed a considerable success by the composer, and a major piece entitled Hadrian’s Wall in which Auden’s script combined poetry, prose and quotation. Britten’s evidently substantial score is now lost but for a single voice part of his ‘Roman Wall Blues’, a setting of famous lyric by Auden beginning ‘Over the heather the wet wind blows’. Also from 1937 were more Cabaret Songs for Britten and the chanteuse Hedli Anderson, as well as Britten’s first voice-and-piano song cycle, On this Island – settings of five poems from Auden’s recently published collection Look, Stranger. In 1938 Britten contributed a substantial incidental music score for another Auden–Isherwood play, On the Frontier, a drama concerning the imaginary countries of monarchist Westland and Fascist Ostnia which were employed by the authors as metaphors for the struggle then raging in contemporary Europe between Fascism and its opponents.

In 1938, Auden and Isherwood left for the United States, where both would eventually settle, Isherwood on the West Coast and Auden on the East, though he did return to Europe fairly frequently, much later purchasing a summer home in the Austrian countryside just outside Vienna; later still he was also accommodated at Christ Church, Oxford, where he had been an undergraduate in the 1920s. Britten followed them to America in 1939, lured by the promise of a Hollywood film which never materialised, by a sense that opportunities in Europe were limited and mindful that his beloved teacher and mentor Frank Bridge had enjoyed his greatest successes there. He was accompanied on this trip – initially, Britten thought he’d be away for about a month – by the young tenor Peter Pears with whom Britten had formed a close friendship; during this American adventure that friendship would blossom into love and a life-long commitment to each other.

In the United States, Britten and Auden inevitably picked up their working collaboration: there were a few more songs, but the most significant collaboration, and in many ways the pinnacle of their achievements together, was Paul Bunyan, the ‘choral operetta’ they fashioned about the mythic pioneering logger Paul Bunyan and his taming of the natural world as America gradually becomes inhabited by men seeking the American dream

The work had a chequered genesis, vacillating between a high school show and a work destined for the Broadway stage, and encompasses an eclectic range of musical and literary styles. They worked on it together while living together in a decidedly bohemian Brooklyn brownstone house, the louche atmosphere of which eventually drove out the rather prim and proper Britten and Pears. Bunyan’s premiere in 1941 was not well received and, although they started to make some necessary revisions, Britten and Auden abandoned it. In any case, Britten and Pears returned to the UK in 1942, making further collaboration on Bunyan impossible. The work lay in Britten’s bottom drawer for 30 years until it was revived in 1976, three years after Auden’s death (at news of which Britten openly wept), and only then following revisions.

Also dating from this American period is Hymn to St Cecilia for chorus, Britten and Auden’s exquisite paean to the patron saint of musicians, and a proposed Christmas Oratorio about which Britten and Auden corresponded until the mid-1940s but which was an impracticable text for musical setting, being simply far too long. Britten did make two independent settings from Auden’s extensive text in 1944, the same year in which the poet published his entire libretto as For the Time Being.

It was long believed that the oratorio project put paid to their friendship, an idea encouraged by Pears in the years after Britten’s death. However, we now know that the two men, while never as close professionally or personally as they had once been – returning home, Britten had freed himself from Auden’s dominant influence – they still remained in touch, albeit only occasionally. In 1953, Auden gave a lecture at the Aldeburgh Festival at Britten’s invitation; while in London he caught a performance of Britten’s coronation opera Gloriana, about which, according to poet Stephen Spender, he wrote a severely critical letter to the composer. The letter was returned to the sender, torn up into small pieces. For the next 20 years, these two major figures in contemporary music and literature – who might have been a British Brecht and Weill – never spoke.