Benjamin Britten commenced the 1930s as a sixteen-year-old schoolboy – a cupboard full of manuscripts to his name, the greater part of them demonstrating craft if not originality – and ended the decade as a composer of substance, soon enough ready to take on the challenge of writing Peter Grimes. Who or what brought about this change" Frank Bridge and W.H. Auden is the glib answer, the former a meticulous teacher of the teenage composer, the latter an intellectual mentor to the shy, somewhat repressed young professional. But such an answer ignores Britten's evident schoolboy potential, and the way he slowly worked at his ideas, fleshing them out with increasing confidence and certainty of touch. The poetry, rituals, environment, and literature of his childhood fermented away in his mind, producing many of the works of the 1930s. And this answer ignores the opportunities available in this decade for a composer of Britten's speed and virtuosity; talkies and the BBC were new patrons, the Church an old one.
The Chester Music catalogue of Britten's works represents his startling transformation from schoolboy to young titan. It captures both his early ambition – his Two Portraits for String Orchestra (1930), for example – and his mature, easy confidence – The World of the Spirit (1938). This transformation was so quick, that even works from the early part of the decade are not mere curiosities. His Double Concerto (1932) is a highly evocative piece, while his Two Portraits, sketches of himself and of a school friend, composed in the summer holidays before he commenced his studies at the Royal College of Music, demonstrates the uncontained melodiousness and plaintiveness for which he was later known. These works also show his extraordinary skill in writing for strings, which his more famous Simple Symphony (1934) displays abundantly. The catalogue contains a few literary anthologies, one of which is the piece with which Britten found his compositional sea legs: A Boy Was Born (1933). It is ambitious in structure, and shows Britten's fine ear for poetry from all periods; the narrative and music unfold with thrilling effect. Another religious piece from this period, the rollicking Te Deum in C (1934), is shorter, yet exhibits the same untrammeled vocal writing and sense of high drama. Britten composed two companion pieces for it in 1961, the Jubilate Deo in C and the Venite exultemus Domino, which recapture the sounds and excitement of his choral works of the 1930s (his Three Two-part Songs included), no matter how much the composer had by then changed his style and approach. The beautiful miniature The Shepherd's Carol (1944) is one of the great 'what ifs' of Britten's life; he filleted the poem from a much larger work by Auden, but never completed the whole thing, as the two men had planned. Without doubt, Britten's work in film, theatre and radio in this decade shaped the opera composer that he was to become. His scores for the ingenious Night Mail (1936), the feature film Love from a Stranger (1936), and the radio plays King Arthur (1937) and The World of the Spirit (1938) may have been composed at speed, yet each contains music of such vibrancy and originality that Britten can be forgiven for borrowing some of it for his concert works, mistakenly believing that these 'incidental scores' had no real life of their own.
Paul Kildea, January 2010
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