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W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten

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Wystan Hugh Auden, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right
W. H. Auden
Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress

On Friday, one of our sister blogs, the Music Division’s In the Muse, marked the hundredth birthday of British composer Benjamin Britten. Highlighting some of Music Division’s important Britten holdings, the post references a recording of Britten’s collaborator Peter Pears reciting W. H. Auden’s sonnet “The Composer” as part of a 1980 program at the Library. That Pears read a poem by Auden is no surprise: Auden and Britten had collaborated on a variety of projects between 1935 and 1942, including documentary films (Coal Face, Night Mail), song cycles (Our Hunting Fathers), and the operetta Paul Bunyan, for which Auden wrote the libretto.

“The Composer,” which may have been inspired by Britten, favorably compares a generic composer to his fellow artists the painter and the poet, declaring of the former that “Only your notes are pure contraption, / Only your song is an absolute gift.” Auden would later reflect more specifically on Britten’s abilities [1]:

What immediately struck me about Britten the composer, was his extraordinary musical sensitivity in relation to the English language. One had always been told that English was an impossible tongue to set or to sing. . . .  Here at last was a composer who could set the language without undue distortion.

Britten is one of many artists significantly influenced by Auden during the poet’s lifetime, and we encourage you to check out the blog post on In the Muse to learn more about Britten’s connections to the Library of Congress.


1. See Humphrey Carpenter’s W. H. Auden: A Biography, p. 78. Carter’s biography provides more information about Auden and Britten’s personal and working relationships.

Comments (2)

  1. Why wasn’t the poem included?

    • We couldn’t reproduce “The Composer” due to copyright restrictions. However, you should be able to conduct an Internet search to find several sites that provide its full text.

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