- Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten edited by John Evans
Faber, 576 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 23883 5
A two-volume collection of Britten’s letters and diaries, entitled Letters from a Life and edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, appeared in 1991, and its first volume covers the same period as this new collection; but there was plenty of work for the new editor, John Evans. The diaries were begun when Britten was 15 and ended, rather abruptly, when he was 25. They were written in pocket diaries, the earlier entries mostly fitting into the space allowed by the format, four days per page. As his interests widened Britten progressed to a page a day.
Vol. 32 No. 3 · 11 February 2010
Frank Kermode’s review of Benjamin Britten’s diaries contains many illuminating things, but his observation that the composer ‘took an interest in records, but died before they achieved their more serviceable modern forms’, while true as far as it goes, obscures the nature and extent of Britten’s involvement with technology (LRB, 28 January). He was frequently busy in the studio (from the 1950s onwards Decca recorded almost all of his major works as they appeared) yet, at the same time, he looked askance at the increasing prevalence of domestic hi-fi equipment. His worry – expressed in a lecture given on receiving the first Aspen Award in 1963 – was that great music, available on tap, would become increasingly undervalued; the example he gives is of a cocktail party where an LP of the St Matthew Passion is playing in the background. An iPod capable of holding multiple copies of the Ring is something he would have seen as even more of a mixed blessing.
Vol. 32 No. 9 · 13 May 2010
Frank Kermode regrets that Benjamin Britten, who died in 1976, did not live to enjoy present-day recording technology as represented by CDs and digital techniques (LRB, 28 January), but reckons the composer was ‘unlikely to have been bothered about inferior means of reproduction’. Inferior means of reproduction! In fact analogue recording, which is what Britten would have known, is still alive and well, and many musicians and critics prefer the real-time accuracy and musicality of the analogue process as represented in LPs and tape recordings. There are sound recordings from European and American sources from the 1930s that are as highly prized even today as any sound on a digital CD. A chief recording engineer at Sony in New York told me early in the 1990s that he and his colleagues, tired of the mechanistic unmusical sound of early CD music, kept copies of LP records at home. Only in recent years, as 24-bit high resolution digital technology has become generally available, has the best of analogue sound been approached.
Jim Van Sant