In May 1939 Benjamin Britten and Peter
Pears left England and headed towards North America. They spent a few weeks in
Canada where Britten wrote Young Apollo, Op.16 for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation. He also began work on the Canadian
Carnival Overture, Op.19. Earlier that year he had been commissioned
by the BBC to write the incidental music for a six-part adaptation by Marianne
Helway of T.H. White’s Arthurian novel The Sword in the Stone.
This book, which was written in 1938, is a standalone novel but
subsequently became the first part of what was eventually issued as The
Once and Future King. The story of The Sword in the Stone tells
of a young boy called Wart, who came to realise that he was King Arthur. He
is instructed under Merlyn’s guidance in the rituals
and activities of the medieval royal court and is found worthy to be
king. The title refers to the famous sword that was magically set in a
stone: it could only be removed by the true King Arthur, the rightful heir to
the British throne.
Britten completed the score on arrival in Canada and posted it back to
London. It was subsequently broadcast during June and July 1939.
The incidental music for The Sword in the Stone score
was written for a chamber ensemble including winds brass, harp and a vast array
of percussion. In 1983 some ten of the original fifteen ‘sections’ of this
music were compiled into a concert suite by Oliver Knussen and Colin
Matthews. The suite, which was first performed at the Aldeburgh
Festival of that year was organised into six movements: -
- Introduction and Boys Tune
- Merlyn’s Tune and Tree Music
- Merlyn’s Spell and Witch
- Bird Music
- Water Theme and End Music
One of the interesting things to look out for in this music is the
‘witty borrowings’ from Richard Wagner’s operas which Britten indulges
in. The Prelude to Rhinegold is alluded to in
Merlyn’s Tune and the use of the ‘Sword’ motif played on the trumpet. The
fourth movement creates its effect by utilising several musical birds taken
from the works of various composers including Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss and
Delius. The scoring is excellent with various instruments being used to
highlight characters and events in T.H White’s story.
It cannot be argued that this work contains the best of Britten’s music
or even prefigures what achievements were to follow. However, it a Suite that
is full of youthful energy and has an undeniable ‘enchanting’ quality.
Contemporary reports suggest that
the atmosphere of the wireless adaptation was complimented by Benjamin
Britten’s music, which "brilliantly sharpened the word-pictures’.
In 1996, Hyperion included
Britten’s The Sword in the Stone: Concert Suite for Chamber
Ensemble on a remarkable CD. Other works included a concert realisation of Night
Mail with Nigel Hawthorne as narrator, the cantata Phaedra, Lachrymae for
viola and piano (1950) and the Sinfonietta (1950). It was played by the Nash
Ensemble supported by several instrumentalists.
It has also been issued in the Naxos
Label (8.573446) featuring the Ohio State University Wind Symphony.
Thanks to the English Music Festival where much of this post was first published.