Parts of Britten's work on the soundtracks of some thirty odd documentaries and adverts made by the GPO film unit in the 1930s are pretty well know, especially those which set Auden's verses such as Night Mail and The Way to the Sea. Yet they come from an intense period at the very start of the composer's career and many of them are much less well known, which begged the question of whether they would be sufficient to fill more than two hours of concert programming. The answer, in the hands of Nicholas Collon, the Aurora Orchestra and Sam West, was emphatically yes.
Getting them to the stage in the first place was not an entirely straightforward process, as Collon explained at a talk earlier in the day. The scores exist, but as is the way with the process of editing films, the existing scores do not precisely match up with the existing pictures. Bigger complications were to be found in some of Britten's more adventurous percussion choices: the cart drawn along an asbestos surface is no longer practical. Fortunately, the work that had gone into re-editing and re-scoring paid off and, as narrator Sam West assured us, no percussionists were injured. Indeed, the live concert setting ensured Britten's scores could be heard rather better than they are on the original films, which not only suffer the sorts of issues of fidelity one would expect of recordings made nearly eighty years ago, but also some decidedly ropey playing in places.
However, the programme opened without a film, but instead with the score to Men Behind the Meters, the print having been lost. As Collon himself remarked, it is not typical Britten. Indeed, the first part sounded almost like the sort of muzak you might get in a not very good restaurant. It's rather a pity we couldn't see what pictures it was meant to serve.
Coal Face, which followed, offered rather more meat. It also highlighted straight away the fact that, in many ways, these were propaganda films, in this case trumpeting the coal industry as the backbone of Britain. And yet it was a fascinating film all the same, especially with its chilling statistics about mine deaths or the miners breaking for lunch at half past one in the morning. Musically we were on far more solid ground and there were clues to some of Britten's later work, most especially the climax as the miners are winched up to daylight at the end of their shift, which calls to mind a moment early on in his first opera, Paul Bunyan (another Auden collaboration).
The first half closed with the famous Night Mail. In some ways, an interesting choice for a concert, since large chunks of it are unscored. But those parts that are, really are. Midway through, as the train pulls away from a key stop, the sound effect train is replaced, for only a minute, by one meticulously created in the orchestra's percussion section. This is a real all hands on deck moment, with other players downing their regular instruments to put to work assorted asbestos free objects. It is rather a pity that Britten only wrote a minute or so of this, since it far more vividly portrays the train than the actual sound effects. The film also highlights what an achievement the service was from a technical standpoint, picking up and depositing bags of post hung beside the track as it whizzed past (not to mention calling to mind a replica train set of my childhood). Then, of course, there is the famous and fabulous Auden poem that ends the film. Auden, perhaps never intending live performance, doesn't give the reader pause for breath, but West rattled through it with admirable style.
Given their origin, some of the films are strikingly political. Nowhere is this more so than with Peace of Britain, a three minute, stridently pacifist statement on the evils of war and the lack of defence against aerial bombardment. Unsurprisingly, it was banned. God's Chillun, a brief history of the slave trade and its legacy, is rather more complicated. On the one hand it hits you fairly starkly with harsh and unpleasant facts about the barbarity of it, from which no country which engaged in it emerges well; on the other it then adopts a somewhat paternalistic tone which doesn't entirely sit comfortably in 2012. Here too, particularly in the choral writing, one could detect traces of Bunyan.
Other films showcased Britten's work in advertising. The Tocher is an especially fine example of this. An arrangement of themes by Rossini, it depicts a young Scot unable to afford the dowery on his beloved. After several minutes of adventures, he arrives at her wedding and presents her father with a gift that proves to be a post office savings book. It is both hilariously funny and also interesting for the fact that until the last few moments it is not clear what they're actually selling, or indeed that they're selling anything. Similarly there is Sixpenny Telegram, where Britten's talents are called upon to extol the opportunities afforded by being able to send nine words for sixpence, into which he works 'the last post'.
The penultimate item in the programme was Britten's first film, The King's Stamp, telling the story of a jubilee stamp, and at the same time the origin of the stamp with the penny black. (Sam West, apparently, is a keen philatelist, and had regaled them with many an insight during rehearsal.) Scored lightly, for just two pianos and percussion, Britten makes full use of his forces. Indeed, it should be noted that the only players in all the films were the percussionists (something, Collon noted in his talk, they were rather pleased about). There are some very nice musical touches, particularly a beautifully judged run down the keyboard as the person on screen descends a staircase. It is also a very funny film, as in its historical moments it mocks the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, it was a fun evening generally; sometimes the films are intentionally witty, at others the humour results from their age, but either way it made for an entertaining few hours.
The evening closed with The Way to the Sea, in some ways a real oddity. Here, after all, is basically an advert to trumpet the electrification of the train line from London to Portsmouth. Yet in the hands of Britten, Auden and director Paul Rotha we get something rather different. The first half is a potted history of Britain's relation with the sea, especially in naval terms and relating to Portsmouth, this then leads into Auden's stunning final narration "but still we seek the sea". Throughout, Britten is on top form. The piece is also not without interesting social comment: "the homes of those who have least power of choice" as the train sweeps through a more deprived urban area. As they had throughout the evening, West, Collon and the orchestra delivered it with aplomb (it would be unfair to dwell on the passage where West misplaced a page of his script, given the challenges of the venture it only highlighted how smoothly the rest of the night had run). It served as a reminder too of just what an effective partnership Britten and Auden could be. Though it was not, as West stated, their last major collaboration, which was of course the oft-forgotten Paul Bunyan (though possibly he had simply lost the word 'film' as well).
One of the most impressive aspects of the evening was the quality of the prints. Whether they have been cleaned or restored, for this or previously, or whether they have just been kept in excellent nick, the fact remains that when blown up on the large screen installed in the Maltings, they looked very good indeed.
I have heard many fine things about the Aurora Orchestra, so it is good to finally have met them in the concert hall. The praise is well earned and they certainly proved themselves an impressive chamber ensemble. Collon ensured they and West were well co-ordinated with the pictures, no mean feat as the films are full of gaps between music or between narrations. This was aided by some nice technology - whoever had done the work of putting in the cue lines that swept across the screen of Collon's laptop had done their job well.
West himself did a generally excellent job on the narration, vividly capturing the spirit of the films. True, there was the odd moment when the balance wasn't quite right, but judging such a live amplified venture to perfection is nigh on impossible, and few if any words were actually lost.
In short, it was an immensely fun evening and several things struck me. First, and especially given the anniversary coming next year, I would think there might be a market for a DVD release of some of the films, with scores redone by this very fine team. Secondly, it would make rather a good Prom if the BBC are looking for a slightly different way to celebrate the anniversary next year.
The afternoon talk closed with a fun question, left unanswered: what composer and poet should the Royal Mail turn to to revive their fortunes? It is probably a task beyond our greatest poets and composers, but answers on a post card, or a comment below, if you have any suggestions for them.