St Christopher

Insights into Britten’s work and life
Event 10
Saturday October 19th, 10.15am 
Little Missenden Village Hall

New understanding of Britten

This is an archived event from the 2013 Programme.

1. Tony Palmer’s new film, Nocturne

Tony Palmer introduced his excellent Vaughan Williams film O Thou Transcendent at the 2008 Festival. He’d already made four films about Benjamin Britten, now he’s coming to present the fifth, Nocturne (after Britten’s song cycle), giving fresh and penetrating insights into the life and work of a composer Tony feels is still not well understood.

Reviewing his original material he concluded that revulsion against war and human cruelty became central to Britten’s life and work, something he must cry out against.

“Within a couple of weeks of the Peter Grimes premiere, in 1945, Britten and Yehudi Menuhin had gone to Belsen concentration camp to perform… can you imagine the shocking effect it had on them? When Britten came back Peter Pears said he went to bed for a week, and also said that none of his music after that was the same”.

So the new film is challenging and not for the faint-hearted – a few scenes contain harrowing images of man’s inhumanity to man over the last 100 years. But it gives a superb insight into the work and life of a complex and uncomfortable genius – Benjamin Britten, 100 years young this year.

"I have rarely seen such a profoundly troubling film. Palmer is a master, and this is a masterpiece" (Simon Heffer)

Tony Palmer is a magnificent film-maker, one of the world’s leading documentary directors.  He’s made over 100 films and won more than 40 international prizes; the only person who has twice received the Prix Italia, television's most coveted award.

Commentators have called him “a clear seeing, visionary artist, pursuing with precision and perfection the image which draws him onwards” (Yehudi Menuhin); and "One of the great, and uncompromising, poets of television” (Sight & Sound). David Thomson praised the “ferocity and daring and the intense subjective raptures” of his work (Biographical Dictionary of Film).

He has an uncanny ability to get into the heads of composers and musicians, with penetrating films about Wagner, Stravinsky, Walton, Holst and many others, as well as Britten and Vaughan Williams.  A Time There Was, about Britten and Pears, won a BAFTA award as well as the Prix Italia – “The most absorbing film ever made about a composer” (Dallas Morning News).

For more information on Tony Palmer, click here. 

2. Working with Britten

After the film we get more first-hand insights about Britten from a panel of three people who knew and worked with him. Tony Palmer is joined in discussion by two composers, David Matthews and Robert Saxton.  They will talk about their memories of Britten, and will welcome questions and comments from the audience.

David Matthews and his brother Colin worked very closely with Britten at Aldeburgh.  David, one of the outstanding British composers of our time, was Britten’s assistant during the late 60s, and became his biographer. David is 70 this year, and his music features in Event 6, Event 7 and Event 12.

Robert Saxton started composing at age six, and by nine he was corresponding with Britten, who mentored and encouraged him in his youth.  Robert’s excellent 3rd string quartet is partnered with Britten’s 3rd in Event 9.

The film lasts just over two hours.  When it ends (around 12.45) we have a 45 minute lunch break. You can order a sandwich lunch (sandwiches, soft drinks, tea and coffee). The panel discussion session follows straight on, finishing by 3pm at latest.

For more information on David Matthews, click here. And for Robert Saxton's website, click here. Information on the Britten-Pears Foundation can be found here.

You can find more Britten in Event 4, Event 9 and Event 12.