Britten and W.H. Auden: A brief but bright creative partnership
The collaboration that resulted in American folktale opera, Paul Bunyan.
14 February 2014 at 1.40pm | Comment on this article
Paul Bunyan was the product of several months work in the squalid bolt hole in Brooklyn where poet W.H. Auden was lord and master. The environment – debauched, alcoholic and noisy – was not at all to the tastes of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who made their escape as soon as the premiere of Paul Bunyan (in May 1941) allowed. The operetta was one of Britten and Auden’s last collaborations before a permanent falling out in early 1942, after which – despite a seven-year friendship – the men seem never to have seen each other again.
Britten first met Auden through their work for John Grierson‘s GPO Film Unit, a pioneering project that gathered together young artists to produce socially-minded films. For Britten, who joined in May 1935 aged only 22, it was the launch pad for his journey into a professional intellectual world. In his diaries Britten wrote of his admiration for Auden’s ‘startling personality’ and ‘remarkably fine brain’; ‘I always feel very young and stupid when with these brains – I mostly sit silent when they hold forth about subjects in general. What brains!’
Britten produced some fine scores with Auden – most famously the GPO films Coal Face (1935) and Night Mail (1936), and incidental music to Auden and Christopher Isherwood‘s play The Ascent of F6 (1937). Auden’s galvanizing influence on Britten’s political views is evident in the brutal despair of Our Hunting Fathers (1936), a song-set for whose first and last movements Auden provided the text. Auden also hugely expanded Britten’s library of poetry; his passionate advocacy of Rimbaud led directly to the brilliant song cycle Les Illuminations (1939).
During their friendship Auden dedicated several poems to Britten. They were largely intended to goad the young composer, the patronizing urgency of Underneath an Abject Willow (1936) being a prime example. Britten’s breezy, upbeat setting of the same year seems an expression of determined resistance. There doesn’t seem to have been a physical relationship between the two (though not for lack of trying on Auden’s part), but Auden undoubtedly played an integral part in spurring Britten to explore his sexuality.
Auden and Isherwood left for the USA in January 1939. Britten and Pears followed three months later. Though Britten did not take to life as an ex-pat as well as Auden, his three years in the country permanently established him on the international stage. Paul Bunyan, though, was not one of those successes. It was savaged by critics despite sublimely silly satire in Auden’s verse and a sparkling score rich in invention.
In January 1942 Auden wrote to Britten a famously severe letter warning, not without cruelty, against Britten’s instinctive bourgeois tendencies: ‘You see, Bengy dear, you are always tempted to make things too easy for yourself… by playing the lovable talented little boy… If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer, and make others suffer… you will have to be able to say what you never have had the right to say – God, I’m a shit.’
Britten wrote his final setting of Auden’s words on the boat back to England in April 1942. The Hymn to St Cecilia (Auden’s nod to Britten’s birthday saint) is a breathtaking work for unaccompanied choir, as glorious in its setting of Auden’s poetry as the words are themselves. That the two men never worked together again was a source of contention during their lives and of speculation since their deaths (even resulting in an Alan Bennett play, The Habit of Art). But the few works that we have – with Paul Bunyan one of the finest examples – make an invaluable collection, a meeting of minds between two of England’s greatest creative spirits.