Benjamin Britten: Night Mail


Night Mail is a documentary film that follows the distribution route of the postal train from London to Aberdeen. It was produced by the General Post Office Film Unit and directed by Basil Wright (1907–1987) and Harry Watt (1906–1987)

The British documentary school in the 1930s can be regarded as a laboratory of research and experimentation on the interrelations of sound, music and montage.  Some of its most prominent outputs are the films Songs of Ceylon (1936), Coalface (1936) and Night Mail (1936). We can see in the approach to these films the practice of subjecting the narration to a rhythmic, quasi verse-like structure. The notion of a tripartite soundscape (voice, music and effects) is masterfully embodied both in Night Mail, which saw a collaboration between composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and poet W H Auden (1907–1973).

The pages reproduced here from Britten’s manuscript contain the first section of the music for the last (and most memorable) scene. The sound of the train (until then omnipresent) has now disappeared and Britten’s music seems to emanate from the landscape. This transition is underlined by the orchestral use of a wind machine.

Although the score evokes the marching of the engine, it never aims to imitate diegetic sounds. Britten lays a different musical soundscape: a staggered introduction of marshal-like drums, sul ponticello strings and a syncopated bass section. This is where Auden’s verses appear, and some of those included in this manuscript didn’t make it into the final cut. Even with the unkind sound mix in the film, it’s clear that Britten’s music is not a mere background to the words, whose syllabic rhythm has also been scored.

Full title:
Benjamin Britten: Music for the documentary film Night Mail (1936), directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright.
Benjamin Britten
© The Britten Estate Limited
Usage terms

Night Mail. Music by Benjamin Britten. Words by Wystan Hugh Auden. © Copyright 1936 The Britten Estate Limited. Rights licensed worldwide to Chester Music Limited, 14-15 Berners Street, London W1T 3LJ United Kingdom. All rights reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by permission of Hal Leonard Europe Limited.

Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.

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British Library
Add MS 60621

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