Poetry in Sound: Britten at the British Library

- 30 May 2013

Britten at Crag House, Aldeburgh, where he moved in 1947.
Photo: Roland Haupt /

The British Library has produced a new exhibition, Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten, opening on 31 May, to coincide with the Britten 100 celebrations.

Curated by Rupert Ridgewell, Sandra Tuppen and Jonathan Summers, the library’s music collection curators, the exhibition presents various audio and video clips, scores and publications in sections exploring different aspects of the composer’s life and work.

One highlight is a manuscript score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, secured by the library in 2012 after it was placed under an export ban by the DCMS. There are no known earlier manuscripts of the work and it is remarkable for the fluency of Britten’s scoring, (perhaps suggesting unfound notes made beforehand). The score is presented alongside the film for which Britten wrote the piece, with the LSO conducted by Malcolm Sargent filmed by Muir Mathieson.

The exhibition also tells the interlinked stories of the composer’s return to Britain from the USA after three years (1939-42) and the genesis of Peter Grimes: both were inspired by an article by E M Forster in The Listener (shown in the exhibition) on poet George Crabbe’s relationship with Suffolk. It was this which led Britten to ‘realising that I must have roots in my own soil, and must return to them, come what may’. The article also led Britten to read Crabbe’s poem The Borough, also displayed, which provided the inspiration for Peter Grimes.

Filming Instruments of the Orchestra, 1946
Photo: Muir Mathieson Archive

Other items include a section on Gloriana, with musical extracts from the Polyphonia Orchestra’s 50th birthday concert for Britten in 1963 and a lavish original programme from the Covent Garden premiere; and a recording of the War Reqiuem with the intended cast including Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (denied a visa for the Coventry premiere) under Bernard Haitink at the 1964 Holland Festival.

There is also the first opportunity to sample a new app created by the Britten-Pears Foundation with the RNCM Symphony Orchestra under Mark Elder based on The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. A programme of events also runs until 23 July (details below).

All of the Britten scores in the library’s collection are available to view online at


Exhibition runs 31 May-15 September 2013, The Folio Society Gallery, British Library, London.

Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday-Friday 9.30-18.00, Tuesday 9.30-20.00, Saturday 9.30-17.00, Sundays and Bank Holidays 11.00-17.00.


Events programme

Performing Britten

Fri 28 Jun 2013, 18.30-20.00

A panel, including conductor Steuart Bedford, viewed as a leading Britten expert as a result of his collaboration with the composer and Professor Paul Banks from the Royal College of Music, explores Britten as a performer.


Friday Afternoon Choir

Fri 5 July 2013, 17.00-17.30

The specially-formed ‘Friday Afternoon Choir’ will perform ‘Friday Afternoons’, Britten’s much-loved suite of children’s songs. The choir is made up of members from three of Camden Music Services’ Choirs; The Camden Youth choir, Camjam Voices and The New Foundling Children’s Choir.


Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century

Mon 8 Jul 2013, 18.30-20.00

Conductor and Britten expert Paul Kildea discusses his book, explores the private and creative life of Britten and provides an intimate portrait.


Benjamin Britten’s Library: Its Past, Present and Future

Tue 9 Jul 2013, 17.00-18.00

Join Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian of the Britten Pears Foundation, to hear how the opening of a new building adjacent to the composer’s home makes this material much more publicly accessible and heralds a new era of activity, appreciation and celebration of the man and his music.


The Turner Ensemble plays Britten

Tue 23 Jul 2013, 18.30-19.30


The Young Person’s Guide

Tue 23 Jul 2013, 17.00-18.00

Last year the British Library acquired a draft manuscript of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. British Library Music Curator Nicolas Bell will tell the story of the composition of this famous work, originally written as a film score and later adapted as a concert piece.

Wagner 200 events

The British Library’s music programme also includes two events celebrating the bicentenary of Richard Wagner as part of the Wagner 200 festival, Wagner’s Ring Cycle: A Complete Reading and Wagner the Writer: A Study Day.


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