Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 July 2019
A reviewer of Britten's 1943 work Rejoice in the Lamb, based on Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno (1759–63) remarked that ‘Mr Britten has a way of choosing the most recondite texts to set to music’. Even as a young man, his textual choices for his songs and choral works were, as Neil Powell writes, ‘randomly eclectic’ and ‘the sheer oddness of the poems … would often serve him surprisingly well when he came to set them to music’. Britten also had a lifelong taste for ‘anthology’ works (Peter Porter has written that ‘the Nocturne … and the Serenade are excellent pocket anthologies’), which partly explains his catholic choices, as well as the sheer number of poets involved. Boris Ford notes that Britten set texts by around ninety poets, but in fact across the complete range of his vocal and choral works Britten set the words of over 150 writers in his lifetime, including the fifty-six different authors he set as a child. Britten's total far outstrips those of his contemporaries or recent forebears. Vaughan Williams made use of just over forty; Lennox Berkeley about the same; while Walton and Tippett set the texts of only around fourteen writers apiece. This comparison needs to be qualified by a reminder that Britten wrote considerably more vocal works than any of these other composers, largely because of his muse of many decades, Peter Pears. But it is not entirely because of Pears. Britten's productivity throughout his life resulted from a lifelong search for inspiration in a text, as well as in a voice.
Britten's eclecticism might suggest he had no preference for any particular writers, unlike that demonstrated by the other composers listed here, such as Vaughan Williams’ pronounced attachment to Walt Whitman. Britten's taste for collected anthologies of poetry introduced him to groups of poets rather than specifically to one poetic voice; and, as indicated above, his adventurousness in his choices of text is widely accepted. Nonetheless, as a mature composer he did demonstrate an increasing fondness for a certain type of poetry – or rather, for the poetic tastes of his childhood, which, judging by the nature of the material to which he was exposed in 1920s Lowestoft, were texts that cannot really be considered ‘recondite’.