‘Read some Ingoldsby legends in evening’, Britten recorded in his diary on the 15 August 1932. The young composer was enjoying a collection of humorously told versions of myths, poems and ghost stories. Does this reference tell us that Ingoldsby whetted Britten’s appetite for folklore? He certainly enjoyed reading myths and, significantly, his professional interest in mythology was enhanced later in the decade through the medium of radio.
On the 23 April 1937 D. Geoffrey Bridson’s play King Arthur was broadcast live on the National Programme under the direction of Val Gielgud. With a cast that included Esmé Percy as Merlyn and Michael Redgrave as Sir Galahad, the play retraced Arthur’s life, his love of Guinevere and his witnessing the dissolution of the Round Table. Britten provided the score, a set of pieces that exists now as a concert suite, arranged by Paul Hindmarsh. Nearer the time, when Britten thought there was little chance of its being heard again, he reused some of the music in his Piano Concerto of 1938 and the Ballad of Heroes (1939).
He turned to Arthur a second time when working two years later on the radio adaptation for a young audience of T.H. White’s then recently completed novel The Sword in the Stone. This was the tale of Arthur’s apprentice years, depicting his childhood, his learning at the knee of the wizard Merlyn and his fateful removal of the sword from an anvil to determine his rightful place as successor to Uther Pendragon.
Marianne Helwig’s six-part serialization was produced for the National Programme in the summer of 1939 when Britten and Pears had already left England for what would become a three-year residence in North America. ‘I shall get [the BBC’s] stuff done this week & send it to them by the beginning of June as I promised’ the composer wrote to his publisher Ralph Hawkes from his ship the Ausonia in early May. He completed the music soon after his arrival in Canada and, realising he would not be present during the recording sessions, he enclosed a detailed set of notes about how certain sections were to be performed, when he posted the score back to England.
‘I) Couldn’t think of Bird noises – so you’ll find one original bird (Donald Duck?!) on trombone -- & visitors from Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony), Wagner (Siegfried), Strauss (Bourgeois Gentilhomme), Liza Lehmann (Bird Songs) & Delius (1st Cuckoo) – which may be abit incongruous – but that’s the best I can do!!! […]
K) Lustily is all is ask -- & accurately!! […]
M) Please may the witch have a drum background – or if not a drum, let her (or someone else) stamp – or hit a broom or anything. I want the rhythm.[…]’.
Britten’s remote instructions were entrusted into the hands of Leslie Woodgate (with whom Britten had worked on previous occasions) who conducted the male voices of the BBC Singers and the musicians from the BBC Orchestra.
Two items in the collection show a later reprise in Britten’s connection with T.H. White’s work. White’s imaginative four-volume re-telling of the Arthurian saga was completed in 1958 and published under the title The Once and Future King. Britten’s love of reading legends is again in evidence in an imprint of the quartet kept in his and Pears’ Library. It is not known when he acquired the book, nor when the author wrote his inscription, which possibly reflects the admiration he felt for the 1939 score.
In 1963, a year before White’s death, an EP of part of the story of The Sword in the Stone was made by the Argo Record Company. It was narrated by the author and, as the blurb on the back of the cover tells us, the soundtrack featured music from the 1939 radio production of the play.
Works such as the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for solo oboe (1951) and the cantata Phaedra (1976) also illustrate Britten’s use of classical myth for sources of music. In late 1943 he was engaged to write the incidental music for Edward Sackville-West’s drama The Rescue. Based on Homer’s account of Odysseus’ return to Penelope after the Trojan War, the drama tells the tale of the suitors who try to win her during her husband’s lengthy absence. Britten’s music comprises 57 minutes of the two-episode drama, which was first broadcast on the 25 and 26 November 1943. The score also became the basis for a concert version of the music for orchestra, soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone and speaker.
Sackville-West’s praise for Britten’s music was considerable. He commented that ‘at every point [it] surpassed my highest expectations’ – a quotation that comes from a volume in Britten and Pears’ book collection. In 1945 the text of the play was published by Secker and Warberg and a presentation copy (from 850 copies of a limited edition) was given to the composer. This edition contains pencil markings, providing cues for the music and bears the inscription ‘For Ben / with best love / from / Eddie’.
The drama is intensified by the inclusion of six striking illustrations by Henry Moore. Moore’s art has a haunted quality, highly appropriate to the depiction of myth, and one which would mark future work on similar themes (such as his later lithographs for André Gide’s translation of Goethe’s Prometheus). ‘It only remains for me to express my great admiration for the drawings with which Henry Moore has illustrated the text,’ Sackville-West added in his Preamble to the play. Moore’s images, like Britten’s score, reveal a fascinating interpretation of Sackville-West’s work.