‘Nature was etched in Britten’s music’: the birdwatching composer


There’s no place like home, and no one knew that better than Benjamin Britten. He began composing folksong arrangements in 1941, when he was homesick in the US. Those songs brought him back to Suffolk – to the people and landscape he loved. Accepting the inaugural Aspen award in 1964, Britten said: “I belong at home – there – in Aldeburgh … and all the music I write comes from it.”

I had been studying Britten’s folksong arrangements for a year when I read that. I knew intuitively that his songs were rooted in the land, and I decided I needed to go to Aldeburgh to hear the music of that place for myself.

From my home in Paris I travelled to Suffolk, where Britten created the Aldeburgh festival (cancelled this year for the first time in its 72-year history). The trip was the beginning of a five-year journey towards the creation of a recording called The Wild Song, which pays tribute to Britten’s relationship with nature.

I had learned in Paul Kildea’s biography of the composer that in the 1950s Britten presented concerts at the festival combining spoken and sung poetry. Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library at Britten Pears Arts showed me concert programmes from the festival’s early years, which revealed how Britten paired music with poetry of the same era and/or theme. In one event called Verse and Music at the 1953 festival, Yeats’s The Second Coming and William Blake’s Hear the Voice of the Bard were matched with Bach’s chorale Christ ist erstanden. A festival in 1956 featured a programme called The Heart of the Matter, which revolved around Britten’s Canticle No 3, Op 55 with both spoken and sung poetry by Edith Sitwell. These concert programmes confirmed that my idea for the structure of The Wild Song – mixing spoken word with Britten’s folksong arrangements – was something that Britten might have approved of. Which was important to me.

Another concert programme showed that in 1952 Britten included three films by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in his festival. Nature was not separate from Britten’s music or his programming, it was deeply etched in it. Britten was an avid birdwatcher and longstanding member of the RSPB (his subscription, for at least some of that time, was a present from his sister Barbara). Britten attached his membership badge to his car and gave gift memberships to friends, including the Royal Opera House director George Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood. There is a strong link between the RSPB and Suffolk – one of the charity’s greatest successes was the return of avocets to breeding in the UK in 1947 (the bird is now the RSPB logo) after an absence of 100 years. This took place at Minsmere, close to Aldeburgh. Perhaps Britten’s interest in birdwatching was sharpened by the knowledge that his own part of the world hosted one of the UK’s major sites of ornithological interest.

Certainly, the natural soundscape of Suffolk and the birds Britten loved are reflected in his music. Yehudi Menuhin once said: “If wind and water could write music, it would sound like Ben’s.” Paintings in sound, his Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes are infused not only with the Suffolk seascape but also with the sounds of birds, the redshanks and the reed warblers that Britten would have heard on the daily “composing walks” he took after lunch to reflect on his morning’s work.

At almost every one of his Aldeburgh festivals, Britten included environmentally themed concerts, lectures and films. There were concerts on “Water Music and Music of the Sea”, lectures on nature protection, bird life in East Anglia, the flora of Suffolk, the satisfaction of birdwatching, the conservation of wildlife in Africa and symposiums on herring and sprat. Films by the RSPB featured in five different festivals. In 1971 he shared a film called The Last of the Wild, about threatened wildlife. In 1969, there was a beachcombing expedition in association with the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society. All of this was woven into his musical programmes.

The concept of an “environmentalist” did not exist in the 1950s when Britten began programming environmental films and lectures. It is clear that in his dedication to the preservation of his natural surroundings in Suffolk he was ahead of his time.

My album frames Britten’s folksong arrangements with poetry by WB Yeats read by Simon Russell Beale and nature soundscapes by composer Mychael Danna. We recorded it at the Britten Studio in Snape Maltings and created the album’s visuals in and around Aldeburgh, too – it felt important to do all of the work on site because the landscape has changed little since Britten lived there. The sounds we hear there today are probably very similar to what Britten heard 70 years ago.

The folksongs Britten arranged come from an oral tradition that is linked to the land and the men and women who tended it. They cover love, loss and faith, they celebrate resilience in the midst of uncertainty and suffering. I paired some of the songs on the album with poems by WB Yeats on a similar theme, as Britten did in his festivals of the 50s. Yeats’s language seemed to resonate so naturally with the lyrics in the folksongs.

The final edit of Britten’s songs and Yeats’s poetry was complete when I came across an article written by James Rebanks, a shepherd who lives and works in the Lake District. I wrote to ask him if he might contribute to the project, too – his relationship with nature embodied the ideals of the album. He recorded for us sounds from around his Cumbrian farm – the sheep, a running brook, rain and rustling leaves – which were then incorporated into Mychael Danna’s soundscape interludes.

The album has taken on a new resonance at a time when we have seen the global experience of lockdown transform attitudes towards nature. This forced slowing down has opened our eyes to the beauty and wonder which has always surrounded us. I am sure Britten would have been pleased to learn that over the last few months there has been a rise in birdwatching. Many more of us are realising there is a larger rhythm that continues independent of our existence, which we must nourish and safeguard. And yet the climate crisis grows worse by the hour, and terrifyingly little has been done about it. This moment in history is an opportunity to think about how we treat the Earth, our only home. It is exactly what Britten asked us to do as early as 1950. It’s not too late to listen.