Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Ben Britten and Dovedale

November 23rd  is St Cecilia’s Day, the patron saint of music, it will also mark the 100th anniversary of the British composer Benjamin Britten, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century. Britten is usually associated with Suffolk and the concert hall at  Snape Maltings close to Aldeburgh is a project which he devoted many years of his life, but there is a link with Dovedale at a particularly crucial juncture of his life.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the first performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a work that holds its place in the classical repertoire. It was written shortly after he returned from the United States where he had spent several years collaborating with the poet WH Auden. (Auden has a Staffordshire Moorlands connection as he wrote poems as a young man following a visit to the area in 1925 on Froghall Wharf and Waterhouses Railway Station). The most notable result of their collaboration was the 1938 short film promoting the GPO “Night Mail” with its opening line “This is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order”

The Serenade opens with “Pastoral” a poem by the 17th century poet Charles Cotton of Beresford Hall near Dovedale. He was very much a lover of the Staffordshire countryside and passionate about the local landscape. Sadly, the old hall was demolished in the 1850s and very little remains apart from gateposts visible from the road. He took his public duties seriously and was a local Magistrate and a Revenue Commissioner from 1665. He was widely recognised as an authority on the county and it seems that Dr Robert Plot who wrote the first history of Staffordshire in the 1680s consulted him.

In 1681 Cotton published the “Wonders of the Peak”, the first travel book of the area, which is a poetic description of several sights including in 1681 the newly built Chatsworth, St Anne’s Well, the Caves near Castleton as well as his beloved Dove.

He died of a fever while on a visit to London in 1687. He is buried far from his beloved Dove in a wall tomb in St James Church in Piccadilly in the middle of the bustle of the West End.

Interest in Cotton began to decline during the Victorian period as polite society found his poetry too ribald for polite society. A revival of sorts began following the use of his poetry in “Serenade”. Britten took considerable care with the text. No doubt he was helped by his close friendship with Auden. “Pastoral” describes a June evening in Dovedale with the lengthening shadows making objects appears far larger than they are:” brambles like tall cedars show” and ending as the light fails.

And now on benches all are sat
In the cool air to sit and chat
Till Phoebus dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.