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Reviews

Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
07 Jul 2009

Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was. . .

With its’ title taken from the composer’s Suite of English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, Tony Palmer’s film Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was… is a solid documentary assembled from interviews, rehearsal clips, photographs and other audio-visual materials to create a vivid portrait of the composer.

Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
A film by Tony Palmer featuring extracts from: Peter Grimes; Billy Budd; A Midsummer Night's Dream; War Requiem; Curlew River; Death in Venice; Nocturne; Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

With: Benjamin Britten; Peter Pears; Leonard Bernstein; Sviatoslav Richter; Janet Baker; Julian Bream; Heather Harper; Imogen Holst; John Shirley-Quirk; Rudolf Bing; Henry Moore; English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford.

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A Time There Was… is refreshingly straightforward, without artifice to alter the emphasis implicit in the documentation itself. The comments of family members are touchingly revealing. Some of the details are remarkably pithy about the environment in which Britten grew up, and Palmer is good not to editorialize. Details take shape within the context of the film. For example, Britten’s cousin Elsie’s comment about the composer’s prescience might sound out of place, but Palmer’s inclusion of it underscores some of Leonard Bernstein’s remarks about Britten’s music, and touches like these are entirely characteristic of the film.

Originally released in 1979, just three years after Britten’s death, this issue on DVD makes the film available to new audiences. (A comprehensive filmography is available at www.tonypalmer.org.) More than that, the release demonstrates the strength of Palmer’s film, which holds up well after three decades. While some of the footage in A Time There Was… has a grainy look, that quality contributes to the overall feel of Palmer’s film in bringing forward firsthand materials to document his subject. In terms of the concept and sense of the whole, A Time There Was… remains a fine, convincing portrait in film. Unlike some more recent film biographies, it lacks some of the aspects of the biopic by remaining close to the subject. The narrative is implicit in the images and pacing Palmer brings to the screen. The director is present in the presentations, not as a rear of a head asking questions in interviews or contributing a narrative to hold the images together. The images lead one to the other, and the narrative is found within the careful editing of the source material.

In addition the rehearsal clips give a sense of Britten working on his music in ways that others could not convey as effectively. In addition, the judicious selection of musical examples helps to anchor the film nicely in the sonic world Britten created. Not everyone would choose the same examples, but Palmer achieved a representative variety, which not only gives those unfamiliar with Britten’s music a useful introduction, but also serves to remind those who know the repertoire to return with renewed interest. For example, Britten’s contributions to film may not be the entire basis for his reputation, but the fact that he worked in this idiom is useful information. More than that, his efforts are not without interest, especially in the clip which Palmer used from the film The Way to the Sea.

At the same time, the treatment of the relationship between Britten and Peter Pears is sensitive and balanced. It is neither condescending nor apologetic, and that is as it should be. As appropriate as it now seems, such a balanced approach seems to be remarkable for its time, and the result stands well, decades after Palmer originally released the documentary.

While a fine body of primary and secondary materials exist in print to document Britten’s life and works, this documentary brings certain aspects of his career to life in ways that film does best. To Palmer’s credit, his films on Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Igor Stravinsky, and others have earned his praise, and the release on DVD of the present documentary about Benjamin Britten stands well with the others. A solid film when it was first issue, this newly issued DVD continues to make available an important and engaging resource on Britten.

James L. Zychowicz

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