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The Trouble with the Movies


At the age of twenty-two, composer Benjamin Britten learned some important lessons about composing–by going to the movies.

The year was 1935, and a producer working for the British government film unit asked Britten to write music for a series of documentaries. Already working for the unit were some of the great literary luminaries of Britten’s generation–W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, and Christopher Isherwood. An added benefit for Britten was the discipline that came with having to work quickly to specifications, even when inspiration was lacking.

Britten also learned how to write for small ensembles and how to create unusual musical textures since he was sometimes called upon to help make sound effects.

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While he was working for the government film unit, Britten was commissioned by an outside producer to write music for a feature film, Love from a Stranger, starring Basil Rathbone and Ann Harding. From that experience he quickly learned about the darker side of writing film scores. For weeks at a time, the director kept him on standby at the studio and then expected him to write something on short notice only to have it scrapped when the director changed his mind.

Britten finished the feature film score on time, but the ordeal soured him on writing anything else for feature films. His one weakness was for the books of Arthur Ransome, and the author did approach Britten about writing a score for him, but the project never materialized, and although Benjamin Britten received many other offers to write for the movies, he turned down every one of them.

At the age of twenty-two, Benjamin Britten had learned all he needed to know about the bright and the dark side of composing for films.

The story is told in the 1986 biography My Brother Benjamin by Beth Britten.