Monday April 15 2019

Every month we highlight the gems from Britten and Pears’ book collection in their Library. Britten-Pears Foundation Librarian Nicholas Clark talks about the latest selection that celebrates April and the arrival of spring.

‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote…’ – General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Although Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the few poets whose work Britten did not set, he maintains a significant presence in his and Pears’s Library, as these editions suggest. Perhaps less well known, however, is the connection drawn between Chaucer and one of Britten’s discarded ideas for an opera.

Following Peter Grimes (1945) the composer was seeking a subject for a new opera, something that would, in contrast to Grimes, provide the plot for a comedy. Urged on by the playwright Ronald Duncan he mined the works of the Father of English Poetry and considered adapting The Miller’s Tale, the bawdy second episode from Chaucer’s best known work. Eric Crozier, who produced Peter Grimes and who was a key member of the English Opera Group for which the new work was to be written, was concerned about the lewd undertones of the tale, and so the project was soon abandoned.

Britten may not have set Chaucer’s words, but medieval English verse can be found in several of his pieces, such as the Spring Symphony (1949) which concludes with a rousing chorus of Summer is Icumin in, and also Sacred and Profane (1975) the eight lyrics for unaccompanied voices written especially for Pears and the Wilbye Consort.

The tale woven around Britten nearly adapting Chaucer is reason enough to display these attractive volumes, just two of nine editions of Chaucer in the collection, as April’s sweet showers fall.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales with wood engravings by Eric Gill, 1929

Eric Gill’s black and white engravings for this edition of the Tales emulate the imaginative border illustration in lettering we often associate with medieval texts. The style, however, is distinctly Gill’s own. Although this first image portrays the reverent pilgrims many of his pictures capture the irreverence, bawdiness and fun that several of the tales convey.

Eric Gill is also represented in the BPF art collection, in the Gospel letters that can be found in the cabinet here in the Library (to the right of the painting by William Blake). The faux medievalist style is similar to his illustrations for this edition of Chaucer.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, Volume I, illustrated after drawings by W. Russell Flint, 1913

Chaucer has been a source of inspiration for artists and illustrators for over 600 years. The earliest known depictions of his characters in print are the woodblock engravings in William Caxton’s edition in the late 15th century. But a rich vein of illustration follows through to the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, and on to the water colour images by Scottish artist Sir Russell Flint (1880-1969) for this volume, published the year of Britten’s birth.

In this example, from the Golden Age of book illustration, we see Flint’s impression of the Miller’s Tale’s principal characters: John the carpenter, his wily young wife Alisoun and the amorous student Nicholas. We can only speculate how Britten might have interpreted the infamous ‘kissing’ scene that occurs in the tale’s comic conclusion had he realised the operatic version.