RECENTLY DISCOVERED BRITTEN, UNHEARD SINCE 1937
Colin Matthews writes ...
When Charlotte Higgins (chief arts writer of the Guardian newspaper and author of new book about Roman Britain Under Another Sky) asked me if I knew anything about Britten’s lost score for Auden’s Hadrian’s Wall I was aware that a page of manuscript paper with the vocal line of ‘Roman Wall Blues’ had recently turned up out of the blue. I had only given it a quick look at the time, but enough to know that it was very much in the mode of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and the ‘Funeral Blues’ from The Ascent of F6, both also composed in 1937. I suggested to Charlotte that I attempt to write a piano accompaniment for the song and she responded enthusiastically: the score is printed in her book and the full work features on NMC's 'Britten to America'.
Our album Britten to America featuring more rare and unrecorded radio and theatre works by Britten can be purchased here.
Benjamin Britten: Roman Wall Blues (accompaniment by Colin Matthews)
Mary Carewe, soprano
Huw Watkins, piano
Charlotte Higgins writes ... 'Roman Wall Blues' was written to be performed as part of W.H. Auden’s radio play, Hadrian’s Wall, which was aired from Newcastle on 25 November 1937. The original broadcast, like much live radio at the time, does not survive, but the script does: It is a delightfully and unashamedly educational play about the history of the wall, framed by the device of a family’s daytrip to the fort at Housesteads. The broadcast went, reported Britten in his diary entry for the day, “fearfully badly”. But, he added: “There’s good stuff in it I know.” The critic of the Listener agreed, admiring the “terrific vitality” of the music. She also noted – the broadcast was of course live – “an uncomfortable pause during which an actor was told in several very audible whispers to turn to page three”.
Britten’s music was thought lost, until 2005, when a handwritten copy of the vocal line turned up in the possession of a 99-year-old former employee of the Bank of England, who had been part of the local choir brought in to sing it. In the end, the choir wasn’t used for Roman Wall Blues – at the last minute, a crooner from a Newcastle dance hall, whose voice was felt to be more appropriate to the material, was roped in. The music is very bluesy indeed: mournful, bitter-sweet, with shades of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So (Porgy and Bess hadn’t yet had its British premiere, but Britten may have heard some of the songs on a 1935 RCA Victor recording). Composer Colin Matthews, who was Britten’s assistant in the 1970s, has completed a piano accompaniment to the song.
'BRITTEN TO AMERICA' (cat # NMC D190)
To mark Britten's centenary, we released in December 2013 premiere recordings of four works for stage and broadcast: Britain to America and An American In England, jointly commissioned by CBS Radio and the BBC, performed by the Hallé and Mark Elder; and music for 2 stage productions with W.H. Auden - The Ascent of F6 and On The Frontier.
The Ascent of F6 (Samuel West, narrator | Jean Rigby, mezzo-soprano | Andrew Kennedy, tenor | Ex Cathedra/ Jeffrey Skidmore)
On The Frontier (Samuel West, narrator | Ex Cathedra/ Jeffrey Skidmore)
An American in England (Samuel West, narrator | Hallé/ Sir Mark Elder)
'Where do we go from here?' (from Britain to America) (Mary Carewe, mezzo-soprano | Hallé/ Harry Ogg)
Britten made the hazardous journey from the United States back to England in the spring of 1942. Within a few weeks he had faced a Tribunal exempting him from military service as a conscientious objector. In his statement to the Tribunal he had said “I believe sincerely that I can help my fellow human beings best, by continuing the work I am best qualified to do”, and almost immediately he began giving concerts with Peter Pears in towns, rural villages and prisons. He also wrote three major scores for radio propaganda programmes : first Appointment, a BBC drama set in an internment camp in France, then An American in England, six programmes about wartime conditions in England produced by the BBC for live transmission in the USA by CBS, and Britain to America, three programmes as part of a weekly transmission by NBC. The last of these was completed by January 1943; in spite of the speed with which they were written, the music of all of them is elaborate and dramatic – the composer is clearly limbering up for Peter Grimes, whose libretto was evolving during this period. One fascinating sideline of these projects was that Britten met Dennis Brain, playing as principal horn of the RAF Orchestra in An American in England. “I took every opportunity to write elaborate horn solos”, Britten said. A few months later he had composed the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Under Another Sky is a book about the encounter with Roman Britain: about what the idea of 'Roman Britain' has meant to those who came after Britain's 400-year stint as province of Rome - from the medieval mythographer-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth to Edward Elgar and W.H. Auden. What does Roman Britain mean to us now? How were its physical remains rediscovered and made sense of? How has it been reimagined, in story and song and verse?
Charlotte Higgins has traced these tales by setting out to discover the remains of Roman Britain for herself, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a splendid, though not particularly reliable, VW camper van. Via accounts of some of Britain's most intriguing, and often unjustly overlooked ancient monuments, Under Another Sky invites us to see the British landscape, and British history, in an entirely fresh way: as indelibly marked by how the Romans first imagined, and wrote, these strange and exotic islands, perched on the edge of the known world, into existence.
About Charlotte Higgins
Charlotte Higgins is the chief arts writer of the Guardian. She is the author of three books: Under Another Sky (Jonathan Cape), It’s All Greek to Me, and Latin Love Lessons (both Short Books). She won the 2010 Classical Association prize. In 2011 she was elected to the council of the Roman Society, and she is an associate member of the Corpus Christi College Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity, at the University of Oxford. Charlotte is a keen amateur violinist and chamber musician.
© Charlotte Higgins (photo by Nana Varveropoulou)