Monday June 17 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 display for June.

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth…
Alfred Tennyson, The Kraken

Tennyson’s brooding sea monster appears in Britten’s 1958 song cycle Nocturne – a performance of which is featured during this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. The Kraken is an uncanny being who inhabits the depths of the ocean, and its inherent mystery blends in well with Britten’s evocation of the surreal world of dreams. The sounds of night beasts, a memory of the horrors of the French Revolution and a description of the ghosts of dead soldiers are all interwoven into the cycle before they give way to a more serene vision of a dreamer’s beloved in a Shakespearean sonnet. Like the earlier Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943), Britten heightens in Nocturne our awareness of the fears as well as the wonders hidden by darkness.

The natural and supernatural worlds are two connected themes for this month’s book display. Britten selected a number of poems for Nocturne from Walter de la Mare’s anthology Behold, this Dreamer in order to create an extraordinary dream sequence. James Fisher’s Adventure of the Sea, on the other hand, acknowledges Britten’s love of the coast, as well as the inspiration it offered him and others. ‘If wind and water could write music,’ Yehudi Menuhin once observed, ‘it would sound like Ben’s’. The poetry found in Britten and Pears’s Library, and the birdsong and colour in their garden (which you’re also welcome to enjoy) provide insight into how some of that music came about.

Behold, this Dreamer: of Reverie, Night, Sleep, dream, Love-dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Spirits, compiled and introduced by Walter de la Mare. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1945

Britten’s Nocturne originates partly from this volume, a ‘survey’ of poetry chosen from a range of periods. The composer showed a fondness for Walter de la Mare’s own verse and set a number of his works to music during his childhood and youth. As he wrote in his Introduction, de la Mare hoped that Behold, this Dreamer would be the sort of book that could be ‘opened at random, browsed in, and then laid aside, until (as I hope) it is returned to again.’ The sheer variety of texts that Britten set throughout his career suggests that he clearly followed his advice with this and many other volumes of poetry in the collection.

James Fisher, Adventure of the Sea. London: Rathbone Books, 1956. Inscribed ‘For Benjamin Britten, best wishes and in regard, James Fisher Christmas, 1956.’

An appropriate gift for the sea-loving Britten, this beautifully illustrated book, written for the younger reader, is about the sea, the creatures who live in it and the people who make their living from it. It includes a section on the history of the seaside resort—which may well have been of particular interest to an Aldeburgh resident whose Crag Path home gradually became, in its own way, an attraction to several seasonal visitors! The book’s author James Fisher was a broadcaster, writer, naturalist and conservationist. In addition to his fascination with the sea he also shared Britten’s passion for bird-watching and was a noted ornithologist. He lectured on the topic of ‘Nature Protection’ during the 1954 Aldeburgh Festival.