Monday May 20 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 the month of May.

 Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flow’ry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslips, and the pale primrose.

– John Milton, Song on May Morning

These evocative lines are included in Britten’s Spring Symphony of 1949. This remarkable piece stands out as one of only a handful of his works to bear the name ‘symphony’ (or sinfonia). It is divided into four movements, or parts, and each one contains an important choral or vocal element. In addition to Milton, it features excerpts from verse by Spenser, Nashe, Clare, Herrick, Vaughan, Auden, Peele, Barnfield, Blake, Beaumont and Fletcher, as well as lines from an anonymous 16th century poet.

Imagery of nature is integral to building a soundscape that suggests renewal and growth. Needless to say, the composer trawled his library in order to obtain the descriptions he needed, as the array of works by different poets from different periods suggests. From its sternly dramatic opening to its lively celebration of George Peele’s ‘strawberries swimming in the cream,’ to Auden’s beautiful contemplation of the stars, the Spring Symphony suggests all the moods of a changing season. Appropriately, for ‘flow’ry May,’ the two books on display here represent Britten and Pears’s combined love and celebration of flora, poetry and music.

The Shepherd’s Calendar by John Clare edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield; with wood engravings by David Gentleman. London: Oxford University Press, 1964

This beautiful edition of Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar (1827) was a gift to Britten from one of the editors Geoffrey Summerfield, in 1964. It contains the simple inscription ‘For Benjamin Britten, with thanks for music.’ Britten selected lines from Clare’s ‘May’ for the Spring Symphony and combined them with George Peele’s ‘When as the rye reached to the chin.’ David Gentleman’s engraving, which takes an admirable place in the tradition of illustration of pastoral scenes by artists such as Samuel Palmer and Reynolds Stone, captures one of the village children ‘leaping gravestones.’ The same exuberance is found in Clare’s description of the driving boy (included in the symphony):

Cracking his whip in starts of joy
A happy, dirty, driving boy.

Here’s Flowers: An Anthology of Flower Poems compiled by Joan Rutter; with an introduction by Walter de la Mare and wood-engravings by John O’Connor. London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1937

The year after Britten completed the Spring Symphony he composed his Five Flower Songs to commemorate the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of his friends Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst of Dartington Hall—both of whom were avid botanists. The texts for the songs (by Herrick, Clare, George Crabbe and the ubiquitous ‘Anon’) were selected from this finely illustrated anthology. Golden Cockerel Press was a private organisation based in Berkshire, printing books between 1920 and the early 1960s. Illustrators such as Eric Ravillious, Gwenda Morgan, Mary Elizabeth Groom and Eric Gill (whose engravings for The Canterbury Tales we featured last month), produced original work for the press. Ravillious was one of John O’Connor’s teachers at the Royal College of Art and his influence is clearly noticeable in his designs for Here’s Flowers.