The British Library explores Benjamin Britten’s literary, poetic and musical influences with a new exhibition, Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)

  • 31 May - 15 September 2013

As part of the Britten 100 celebrations taking place all over the world, this new exhibition explores the literary, political and historical inspirations behind some of Benjamin Britten’s greatest works, providing a rare opportunity to see exhibits drawn from the British Library’s world class music collections. Alongside handwritten drafts of some of Britten’s best known compositions, including The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra acquired last year by the British Library, Poetry in Sound features some of Britten’s rarely seen manuscripts and unpublished Britten recordings from the Library’s Sound Archive.

Curated by Rupert Ridgewell, Sandra Tuppen, and Jonathan Summers, curators of the British Library’s music collections, Poetry in Sound, displayed in The Folio Society Gallery, explores the poetic, literary and musical influences on Britten’s work through the composer’s handwritten manuscripts, as well as photographs, letters, first editions and unique sound recordings, showing how such literary greats as William Shakespeare, William Blake, W H Auden, Wilfred Owen and Henry James, among others, have had a direct impact on his most celebrated works.

On display for the first time is the draft score of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, acquired last year by the Library, which reveals the astonishing fluency with which Britten was able to construct a large-scale work. The manuscript is displayed alongside Wilfred Owen’s first draft of his poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, one of several Owen poems that Britten incorporated into his War Requiem, a signed manuscript of Britten’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a programme for the first performance of Gloriana at the Royal Opera House on 8 June 1953 as part of the official Coronation festivities, which returns to Covent Garden in June this year for the first time since the original production.

Rarely heard sound recordings in the exhibition include an unknown live recording from the first production of Paul Bunyan, accompanied by photographs of the little known 1941 production at Columbia University in New York.

Curator Rupert Ridgewell says: “We are delighted to be able to share such important artefacts, many never before seen, from the British Library’s extensive collections during Britten’s centenary year. Britten’s work spans almost every musical genre, from opera and string quartets to film music and solo songs, and this exhibition explores how literary and poetic influences shaped his development as a composer, which we hope will show him in a new light.”

The exhibition coincides with the digitisation of all of the Library’s Britten manuscripts, which are now available to view on the British Library website (via, allowing them to be viewed anywhere in the world, which will be a fascinating resource for musicians, performers, scholars, and music-lovers.

The exhibition also provides the first opportunity to experience a new app, created by the Britten-Pears Foundation to introduce a new generation to the orchestra and to the music of Benjamin Britten. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten app, which will become widely available on iTunes in mid June, features illustrations by award-winning artist Sara Fanelli, a specially-recorded complete performance of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra from Sir Mark Elder and the Royal Northern College of Music Symphony Orchestra, creative games, a chance to compose, archive photographs, digitised pages from Britten’s original manuscript, an interactive score and unprecedented insight into the instruments of the orchestra and their players.

Poetry in Sound is accompanied by a fantastic series of music events this summer including a performance of key Britten works by The Turner Ensemble in the British Library’s striking entrance hall, a series of talks on the prolific composer and his works, with speakers such as Paul Kildea, and a specially formed ‘Friday Afternoon Choir’ will perform ‘Friday Afternoons’, Britten’s much-loved suite of children’s songs. The choir will be formed of members from three of Camden Music Services’ Choirs; The Camden Youth choir, Camjam Voices and The New Foundling Children’s Choir.

As well as drawing on Britten’s own manuscripts, Poetry in Sound includes material from several musical archives recently donated to the British Library. The archive of Britten’s biographer, Donald Mitchell, was acquired in 2009 and includes eye-witness reports and memories of people who worked with Britten; the papers of the film composer and music director Muir Mathieson, acquired in 2011, which includes photographs and documents relating to the film Instruments of the Orchestra directed by Mathieson, and the Malcolm Sargent archive – a vast collection of the conductor’s correspondence.


Unless stated otherwise, media content on the press area of our website, including images, is protected by third-party rights such as copyright or trademarks. The British Library is permitted to make the content available to you for promoting associated British Library’s exhibitions, events or activities. If you are not using images to promote a British Library activity, you must clear all rights for your use of any in-copyright material beyond uses permitted under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  • Dimensions:
  • File size:

Notes to Editors

Poetry in Sound: The Music of Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) runs from 31 May until 15 September 2013 in The Folio Society Gallery and is FREE.

Further information about British Library exhibitions and events can be found at

Exhibition opening hours
Monday, Wednesday-Friday 9.30 – 18.00, Tuesday 9.30 – 20.00, Saturday 9.30 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00

Events programme

Performing Britten
Fri 28 Jun 2013, 18.30-20.00
A panel, including conductor Steuart Bedford, viewed as a leading Britten expert as a result of his collaboration with the composer and Professor Paul Banks from the Royal College of Music, explores Britten as a performer.

Friday Afternoon Choir
Fri 5 July 2013, 17.00-17.30
The specially-formed ‘Friday Afternoon Choir’ will perform ‘Friday Afternoons’, Britten’s much-loved suite of children’s songs. The choir is made up of members from three of Camden Music Services’ Choirs; The Camden Youth choir, Camjam Voices and The New Foundling Children’s Choir.

Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century
Mon 8 Jul 2013, 18.30-20.00
Conductor and Britten expert Paul Kildea discusses his book, explores the private and creative life of Britten and provides an intimate portrait.

Benjamin Britten's Library: Its Past, Present and Future
Tue 9 Jul 2013, 17.00-18.00
Join Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian of the Britten Pears Foundation, to hear how the opening of a new building adjacent to the composer’s home makes this material much more publicly accessible and heralds a new era of activity, appreciation and celebration of the man and his music.

The Turner Ensemble plays Britten
Tue 23 Jul 2013, 18.30-19.30

The Young Person's Guide
Tue 23 Jul 2013, 17.00-18.00
Last year the British Library acquired a draft manuscript of Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. British Library Music Curator Nicolas Bell will tell the story of the composition of this famous work, originally written as a film score and later adapted as a concert piece.

Wagner 200 events
The British Library’s music programme also includes two events celebrating the bicentenary of Richard Wagner as part of the Wagner 200 festival, Wagner's Ring Cycle: A Complete Reading and Wagner the Writer: A Study Day.

For all events listings please visit our What’s On pages.

The Folio Society was founded in 1947 to create exceptional editions of the world’s greatest books through the highest standards of printing, binding, typography and illustration. Over sixty years on, its aim remains the same - to publish reasonably priced books that will stand the test of time, in handsome, imaginatively designed and beautifully crafted editions.

For more information:

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

Press Office contacts

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.