Review: Tales from the Stave

Ambient sounds rule in a touching story of a score.

New Statesman
Benjamin Britten at the Royal Festival Hall, 1965. (Photo: Getty Images)

Tales from the Stave

BBC Radio 4

To the music department of the British Library, where a group of historians gathered to examine its most recent acquisition, the 1945 composing score of Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (19 May, 3.30pm).

Although a Boosey and Hawkes version exists at Yale, this wilder document had spent the past 60-odd years in a suitcase with some children’s books at the back of a cupboard belonging to Britten’s one-time assistant Enid, who described the composer as demanding but generous. Britten quietly handed her the papers when she left work to marry, thinking they might be of some sentimental value. It wasn’t until a clear-out last year that the score was discovered, simply marked “A theme on Purcell” (“Hang on, I know what this is,” thought Enid’s euphoric daughter Sonya.) Quickly, to Sotheby’s and £175,000. “It’s such a catchy tune,” sighed one historian, “The xylophone is a classic.” “Rich. D minor. Extrovert,” said another, followed by “Yes, yes, yes!” and “it’s lovely to see it in pencil. I’m fond of pencils.”

The programme was gorgeously confident, allowing the ambient sounds of newly washed hands sweeping softly across pages, and of jackets squeaking and excited breathing, to propel the whole thing. Part-thoughts and half-sentences, far from sounding frustratingly unfinished, had the effect of deeply connecting the ear to an infinite range of life and character. Although a programme about music, it felt crucially more like one about the voices of human beings. “The antiphonal caller responses between instruments – scribing extra lines for himself . . .” “Bass, drum and cymbal, isn’t it? The gong and the whip. Fortissimo. Whack . . .”

Although the manuscript had originally been bought by a foreign collector, apparently the reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest stepped in and plucked it back for the nation. Curious to learn what other delicacies the committee might be in the process of saving, I called them up, only to be told – doomily – that there is at present a “review of the reviewing committee on the export of works of art and objects of cultural interest”. (Good thing Enid and Sonya did their spring-cleaning early.)