In the summer of 1935, Mr. John Grierson asked me to write a chorus for the conclusion of a G.P.O. documentary film called Coal-Face. All I now remember about the film was that it seemed to have been shot in total darkness and a factual statement in the commentary—The miner works in a cramped position. My chorus, he told me, would be set by a brilliant young composer he had hired to work for him, called Benjamin Britten. The following autumn I went myself to work for the G.P.O. Film Unit. What an odd organization it was. John Grierson had a genius for discovering talent and persuading it to work for next to nothing. There was Britten, there was William Coldstream, there was Cavalcanti, among others. Personally I loathed my job, but enjoyed the company enormously. The film which both Britten and myself worked on which I remember best was one about Africa which never got made because it turned out that there were no visuals. Our commentary was a most elaborate affair, beginning with quotations from Aristotle about slavery and including a setting of a poem by Blake. I wonder if Britten still has the score as there was some wonderful music in it.
What immediately struck me, as someone whose medium was language, about Britten the composer was his extraordinary musical sensibility in relation to the English language. One had always been told that English was an impossible tongue to set or to sing. Since I already knew the songs of the Elizabethan composers like Dowland—I don’t think I knew Purcell then—I knew this to be false, but the influence of that very great composer, Handel, on the setting of English had been unfortunate. There was Sullivan’s setting of Gilbert’s light verse to be sure, but his music seemed so boring. Here at last was a composer who could both set the language without undue distortion of its rhythmical values, and at the same time write music to which it was a real pleasure to listen. Another collaboration I remember was a BBC program about the Roman Wall which we were both rather proud of. It was from Britten, too, that I first heard the name of Alban Berg. We went together to a memorial concert just after his death. I had a tummy upset and threw up in the street.
I have, alas, no talent for writing memoirs, for if I had, I would devote a whole chapter to a house in Amityville, Long Island, the home of Dr. William and Elizabeth Mayer, where Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears stayed in 1939–40, a house which played an important role in the lives of all three of us. It was during this period that Britten wrote his first opera, and I my first libretto, on the subject of an American folk hero, Paul Bunyan. The result, I’m sorry to say, was a failure, for which I was entirely to blame, since, at the time, I knew nothing whatever about opera or what is required of a librettist. In consequence some very lovely music of Britten’s went down the drain, and I must now belatedly make my apologies to my old friend while wishing him a very happy birthday.
Drawn from The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose: Volume V, 1963-1968, edited by Edward Mendelson, published this month by Princeton University Press.