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‘We know for whom we mourn’: Britten, Auden and the politics of 1936

  • Barbara Docherty


On 25 September 1936 Benjamin Britten's Our Hunting Fathers, his first adult song cycle, first score for full orchestra and self-confessed ‘real op.l’, had its Norwich première. Its public agenda, both political and social, was set by W.H. Auden's 1930 Poems, and its aggressive technical and moral exhortation desired to épater les ancêetres much as Berg's Wozzeck had sought to do. Its private agenda is, however, of far greater interest. In 1930 it had seemed that the detached, self-conscious Künstlerarzt could take the knife to the social gangrene of the prewar generation and its political prescriptions; by 1936 such detachment yielded neither public nor private satisfaction. Political despair now had three names: German, Jew, and Spain; personal despair derived from the realization that ‘love without love's proper object' led only to love's privation and defeat. The texts Auden assembled for Our Hunting Fathers acted (as many of the choruses in the Auden/Isherwood play The Dog Beneath the Skin had done) as an examen de conscience, both confession and homily, with a Prologue and Epilogue in particular addressed to a composer increasingly aware of an imprisoning emotional isolation.



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1 Conflated from Spender's 1928 volume of Auden's Oxford poems, the charade Paid on Both Sides, and poems from 1928–30. seven of which were replaced in the 1933 2nd edition.

2 Berg had died in the previous December, and Our Hunting Fathers may be part of Britten's musical homage (see LfL, pp.391, 394; for sigla, see Table 1).

3 Faber (1935), Auden acting as self-appointed physician to what he perceived as Britten's emotional sicknesses (demonstrated in relation to On this Island and Paul Bunyan in two forthcoming studies).

4 OBMEV (p.384) ascribes ‘Rats Away!’ to Thomas Hoccleave (?1368–1426); ‘Messalina’ is no.xii in Weelkes's, ‘Ayres or Phantasticke Spirits for three voices’ (1608, EMV, p.227 );

5 ‘In memory of Ernest Toller’ (CSP, pp.143–4), the poem giving this study its title.

6 The last section to be completed, possibly because of its complexity, but possibly also because it spoke too clearly to Britten's emotional and sexual apprehensions.

7 MBB, p.69.

8 MBT, p.41.

9 Choriambic: -xx, anapaest: xx-, where x is a short and - a long syllable.

10 See WBFT, p.24. sb = semibreve, m = minim, c = crotchet, q = quaver, sq = semiquaver, ssq = demisemiquaver.

11 The significance of such ‘verminous’ elements (see below) is considered in the discussion of the Epilogue.

12 In Grigson, G. (ed.), The Arts To-day (Bodley Head, 1935, P.20).

13 The Auden/Isherwood play The Ascent of F6 was published by Faber in 1936, Journey Without Maps by Heinemann in the same year.

14 Using ‘bore’ for ‘bare aboute’, ‘uttered’ for ‘nemeled'’, ‘deliver’ for ‘bewech’, etc.; except where the use of‘great name of God’ for ‘gret Goddes name’ rendered the rhyme with ‘shame’ invalid, Auden retained the original rhyming scheme.

15 Hogarth (1933).

16 Cf. the abcba structure of this movement and the palidromic form (Prologue, Scherzo, Lament, Scherzo, Epilogue) of the work as a whole. See also ‘Messalina's structure below.

17 Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (626–59) was invoked against plagues of rats into the 19th century; Saint Nicasius (Kasi) was the 5th-century bishop of Reims, killed when Huns stormed the city in 451.

18 Also from Ireland, see WFBT, p.26.

19 The rats (see below) would then be the secretive vermin of the soul addressed by poet and composer in On this Island, Night covers up the rigid land and To lie flat on the back the following year.

20 Cf. William Byrd's songs, political satire cast in the form of a lament, a musical and textual model for Britten.

21 Is a parallel also being drawn between Messalina's (fascist) excesses to which only Claudius (the Allies) was blind?

22 The debate on action and pacifism had reached a strident climax in 1936, see AG, p.194.

23 The D joining ‘Messalina’ and ‘Dance of Death’ is the only sustained connexion between movements in the work.

24 Heinemann (1936), also describing a manhunt.

25 It is not clear in the Ravenscroft poem which names in the roll-call are dogs and which hounds. Auden seems to have done little more than reproduce EMV's modernized orthography, using ‘never’ for ‘never’, etc. and Timble for Nimble among the hawks'/dogs’ names. The vocal score (1936, p. l) prints the prefatory text in Britten's reorganized version (see below).

26 Cf. the War Requiem (1961), in which the entirely conventional text of the Missa pro Defunctis becomes a very personal vehicle of protest.

27 ‘Shorn’ may be this rodent-inspired diaspora, or the forcible reoccupation the previous year of the Rhineland territories ‘shorn’ from Germany by the Versailles settlement of 1918.

28 Hawks, , like bombers, destroy their victims from the air (cf Who are these children (1969 ), where cognate 2q + q figures in the piano characterize death during an air-raid); also the wailing shells and shaving scythe in the War Requiem.

29 pate = c = Jew, one whose threat lies in intellectual independence (but initially zealous in the service of the new regime (scythe, kites = c), as was the case in 1933–8). The orchestral ‘Dance of Death’ is a vicious musical demolition of those who saw the killing in Europe and Africa as nothing more than the cull enacted annually on the grouse moor and hunting field (cf the discussion of ‘Tit for tat’ (1928) in WFBT, pp.27–8, Who are these children? and Owen Winomve (1970).

30 Tricker… Stately… Civil… Ruler, the temptation to petty corruption to gain advancement in a nascent Republican/Nazi state, and the moral destruction in submitting to such a power (cf. Ransom's, corruption in The Ascent ofF6, AC, p.239).

31 Cf. the c figures at ‘proud like all his race’ (Death in Venice, Act I, sc5); the Polish people stood in relation to Germany in 1936 as they had to Russia in 1914.

32 TCHA, pp. 103–4, a seminal study of the psychological underpinnings of Auden's work.

33 BB, pp.61–2.

‘We know for whom we mourn’: Britten, Auden and the politics of 1936

  • Barbara Docherty


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