Benjamin Britten’s poetry links explored in new exhibition

Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten’s links with more than 150 poets are explored in a new exhibition at his former home.

The event at The Red House in Aldeburgh considers what happens when poetry and music meet in the settings of a great composer, looking at how Britten set texts of extraordinary breadth and range to music during his career.

His mother was a talented mezzo-soprano, and one of his first “muses” for whom he wrote songs specifically.

When Britten met poet WH Auden in the 1930s one result was a flood of songs, turning Auden’s whip-smart texts into lyrical, poignant and occasionally jazzy vocal lines.

But it was not until he fell in love with the tenor Peter Pears that Britten began composing almost entirely “from the vocal point of view”.

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Kevin Gosling, director of communications at the Britten–Pears Foundation, said: “One of Britten’s favourite poets was William Blake. His setting of Blake’s best-known poem, The Tyger, is explored in a clear and visually striking analysis that forms the centerpiece of the exhibition.

“Another favourite was Edith Sitwell, whose Praise We Great Men Britten started to set but left unfinished at his death.

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“A late notebook, on display for the first time in the exhibition, provides a rare example of Britten’s initial thoughts on setting a text.”

Also on show is further evidence of Britten’s working process, this time in creating a song cycle. He quite frequently left long-lists in poetry books, indicating his initial selections of verse for a projected song-cycle or choral work.

In The Collected Verse of Thomas Hardy he lists 21 poems out of which eight ended up in the final collection in Winter Words. Britten would also sometimes set texts for a song cycle but later discard them if they did not fit with the rest of the work.

More often than not, Britten set poetry from earlier periods, particularly the early 1800s. This was partly for pragmatic copyright reasons, but also perhaps because he retained many tastes from his childhood into adulthood.

The exhibition called Britten’s Words is being staged at The Red House, Golf Lane, on Tuesdays to Fridays, 2pm to 5pm. Admission free.

Visit for full opening details and extended opening hours and talks during the Aldeburgh Festival.

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