A Time There Was, Benjamin Britten

A Time There Was… A Profile of Benjamin Britten

Directed by Tony Palmer — 1980, UK — 103 minutes, color, formatted to 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio — Documentary

IN BRIEF, in this classic documentary, filmmaker Tony Palmer explores the life and works of the great, and gay, composer Benjamin Britten by combining interviews, rehearsal footage, and fully-staged scenes from such operas as Peter Grimes.


Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) is rightly considered one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, for a series of masterpieces ranging from works for solo piano, oboe and cello, to pieces for chamber ensemble, to concertos and compositions for orchestras both small and monumental, to a three-act ballet. His vocal works encompass Folksong Arrangements to several song cycles – setting poetry by Michelangelo, William Blake, W.H. Auden and others – to the stunning choral masterpiece, War Requiem. The form for which he is best known is opera: the frequently performed Peter Grimes is arguably one of the two or three most powerful musical dramas of the last century, and he wrote at least a half-dozen other landmark operas. Kultur International Films is releasing one of the great documentary portraits of a composer, director Tony Palmer’s award-winning A Time There Was… A Profile of Benjamin Britten; it is an indispensable work both for people new to Britten and his longtime admirers.

Palmer, who knew Britten as a close friend, is an acclaimed filmmaker, stage director, author, and critic. The Official Tony Palmer Website details his vast filmography of over one hundred pictures, ranging from early works with The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa (200 Motels), to his famous portraits with and about Stravinsky, Maria Callas, John Osborne, and Britten (which won both a Prix Italia and BAFTA award), to his 8-hour epic about composer Richard Wagner starring Richard Burton. Besides having won over 40 international prizes, including twelve Gold Medals at the New York Film & Television Festival, he is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. It’s no wonder that Britten not only liked but trusted Palmer, and wanted him to do a posthumous film portrait. As Palmer writes in an essay, included in the DVD booklet, “I could never repay my debt to him, but I hoped (and hope) the film would enable others to share something of this strange, haunted man, and his enduring power for us.” Mr. Palmer, you have.

Britten is one of my favorite composers, and Palmer’s film has brought this enigmatic genius vividly to life. Several years ago I studied, in chronological order, the hundred works that comprise Britten’s body of work, and became increasingly awed by the richness, power, and diversity of this immense achievement. I learned to hear his distinctive voice whether in works for solo instruments, string quartets or the orchestral Sinfonia da Requiem, the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers (text written for him by Auden) or a sublime Christmas choral piece like A Ceremony of Carols, a ballet like Prince of the Pagodas, or the extraordinary range of his operas, from children’s entertainments like Noye’s Fludde (‘Noah’s Flood,’ from a medieval play) – Britten has often been called the greatest composer ever to write for children’s voices – to a probing psychological chamber opera like his version of Henry James’s ghostly The Turn of the Screw, to the heartbreaking grandeur of Billy Budd (with Melville adapted for the stage by another great, and gay, novelist, E.M. Forster). With time, Britten’s work only grows in stature; and thanks to Tony Palmer, we can see many aspects of the man behind the musical genius.

Britten is that rarest kind of composer, one whose distinctive musical language gets into your blood, so that at times you may find yourself hearing conversations, or even reading the newspaper, to his distinctively sharp rhythms and yearning harmonies – of course, it’s probably best not to do much ‘Britten-izing’ in public.

But who was Benjamin Britten the man – who composed many of his finest vocal works for his life partner of four decades, Peter Pears (1910–1986)? A Time There Was is a superb documentary portrait, that shows us both Britten’s public persona (as conductor and public figure – the first British composer ever made a lord) and reticent private side. Through a series of choice interviews, ranging from family members to musical luminaries, we see the major points of Britten’s life come to life. Palmer adroitly combines personal archival footage together with original photography to show us Britten’s world in succinct but revealing detail, from his childhood home to schools to his long “exile” on Long Island, New York, to the seascapes which inspired, and haunted, him throughout his life and music. (Britten has been acclaimed for his singular transformation of the sea into music; his Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes is one of the most often-performed, and sublime, orchestral works of the twentieth century.)

There is also priceless footage from 1957 of Britten, Pears and friends in Bali, whose gamelan music became an integral part of the composer’s later style in opears like Curlew River and the ballet Prince of the Pagodas; Britten was eclectically multicultural ‘before it was cool.’ (Of countless examples of his influence, it can be argued that Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which seems the greatest work of musical theatre of the last thirty years, not to mention Pacific Overtures, owes more to Britten than Broadway; for instance, Judge Turpin’s number “The Letter” is pure Curlew River. In film, Derek Jarman created a visual realization of the War Requiem, ‘setting’ Britten’s music and Owen’s poetry to images of stark power.) Palmer also includes heartbreaking footage of Britten and Pears in Venice, shot at the end of the composer’s life, even as he brought the city, and Thomas Mann’s tragic novella, to operatic life in Death in Venice.

In Palmer’s documentary, we see Britten growing up in a solid middle class family in Lowestoft, Suffolk. This musical prodigy, as both a pianist and composer, at age 16 he entered the Royal College of Music on a scholarship. We learn about his resolute pacifism, and his formative experiences in the United States (where Albert Einstein highly praised his work at a private concert), including the fiasco of his comic opera Paul Bunyan (libreto by Auden), followed by his return to England where his next theatre work, Peter Grimes, was hailed as the first masterpiece of English opera since Henry Purcell (Dido and Aeneas) 250 years earlier.

Palmer like Britten makes no apologies for the composer’s tonal conservatism – which in many ways is part of the tradition laid down by the composers he felt closest to, identified at one point by Peter Pears as “Bach, Purcell, Mozart, Schubert.” Britten’s critics might complain that his musical language is ‘unsurprising’ in its textures and formal methods, yet – as Leonard Berstein insightfully remarks in the opening of the film – “If you really listen to [Britten’s music], it is profound… The gears are [purposefully] not quite meshing… [It’s] a man at odds with the world in many ways.” Precisely. And throughout his entire body of work, Britten creates endless variations, using (and mastering) every musical form from solo instrumental works to titanic orchestral and vocal forces, to express that theme – of being in society yet perpetually dissonant with its expectations. That theme – also reflected in Britten’s life as a pacifist and a gay man, both types then being widely despised, not to mention illegal – is discussed, from different angles (and not always consciously), by many of the people whom Palmer interviews.

Through the shrewdly crafted soundtrack, we also hear this theme developed musically (below is a list of all music used in the film). Palmer eclectically includes examples of almost every major form in which Britten wrote, from solo works (such as the great Julian Bream performing the guitar piece, Nocturnal after John Dowland, for which he waited ten years) to extended, fully-staged scenes from the operas Peter Grimes, Curlew River, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice (which Palmer was the first to film). Much more than a “greatest hits” compilation, Palmer’s shrewd use of music lets us hear, and feel, our way into Britten’s inner world in a way that even the actual words of the composer, who appears in many film clips, do not. It’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to speculate that Palmer, a superb musicologist as well as filmmaker, has used a diverse selection of Britten’s works, with their shifting degree of emotion, to parallel the ebb and flow of Britten’s own life; dare I mention that those inclined to speculation might further parallel that movement – both verbal and musical, to the editorial rhythms of the film itself – to “the infinite sea” (to borrow a line from Britten’s Billy Budd)? OK, enough of such rarefied speculation.

For all of Britten’s reserve, the film is remarkable for how full a portrait of Britten it presents. We see footage of him on public occasions, as when he sensitively yet definitively draws out the performance he wants from a musician during an orchestra rehearsal. (Britten was also a great conductor of other composer’s works: his close friend Dmitri Shostakovich dedicated his Fourteenth Symphony to Britten, and entrusted its Western premiere to him; Britten’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos is my single favorite recording, and I’ve listened to it hundreds of times.) In an intimate mode, we come to intuit much about Britten by watching, in a silent home movie, the careful way he walks along a beach with Pears and a sprightly dachshund. It’s also endearing to hear Britten chuckle over his grandiose boyhood dreams, like his early (in his own words) “tone poem, ‘Chaos and Cosmos’: of course, people who connect with Britten’s body of work know that, for all of his then-naiveté, his greatest mature works – however unpretentious were his own estimation of them – do indeed traverse elemental human and natural forces.

For people who enjoy twentieth century poetry, this film provides a (guilty) treat as we hear Britten skewer his close friend and frequent collaborator, Auden, saying with a telling smattering of affection, “Wystan was a bully” who at times “wouldn’t let you speak” while he pontificated endlessly. Among the many artists who talk about their experiences with Britten, we have the legendary musicians Leonard Bernstein, Janet Baker (for whom Britten wrote the cantata Phaedra, which we see in an extended performance excerpt), Sviatoslav Richter, and Julian Bream, as well as sculptor Henry Moore (whose gorgeous sculpture The Scallop, dedicated to Britten, is on the beach at Aldeburgh), filmmaker/historian Paul Rotha (some of whose classic documentary films, like Night Mail, Britten scored), and many others. Palmer knows that to see Britten in something like his fullness, we also need to turn to the ‘non-celebrities’ who knew him well, so we hear from his sisters (who contrapuntally disagree over just how “athletic” young Ben was), brother, his musical assistants, as well as his later housekeeper, and the nurse who attended to him during his final illness (below I’ve identified all of the major people who appear). By the end, we feel closer to Britten than to many heart-on-their-sleeve confessional celebrities.

Much of the emotional power, and structural coherence, of A Time There Was can be attributed to Palmer’s using the extraordinary tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s musical- and life-partner – and muse – as the underscore (if you will) of the entire film. Britten wrote many of his greatest vocal works, from his song cycles to his finest operas, specifically for Pears and his uniquely expressive voice, which both his admirers and detractors characterize as astringent. In a way, Palmer’s film is an illustration, and exploration, of the many suggestive comments that Pears makes about his more than forty years with Britten, until his death (it turns out, a decade before Pears’s own).

He also provides an ideal balance to the Britten we see because on one level, Pears seems a man who has found the acceptance that eluded Britten; in a way, the always-present yearning that is a major defining element of Britten’s music (he does yearning better than any composer since the also-gay Tchaikovsky) is resolved in Pears’s comfort with his life…. and Britten’s death. The way he describes holding Ben in his arms, while he died, is one of the most moving – yet reassuring – moments I have ever seen captured on film.

Pears is understandably reticent to talk about his and Britten’s being gay – since they had lived in a Britain where “sodomy” carried a career- and life-destroying prison sentence – and the subject only comes up briefly at the end of the documentary. It’s the one topic that disquiets Pears; and yet we should commend him for broaching it at all, considering the very different time in which he and Britten lived, and had to hide their love.

We are of course much more open about GLBT connections today, and we can see that Britten – who was even more reluctant than Pears to mention ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ – in fact celebrated gay literature throughout his entire career. Many of his best-known collaborators were gay, including poet W.H. Auden (many works including song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, choral Hymn to St. Cecilia, opera Paul Bunyan), author E.M. Forster (libretto for Billy Budd, from Melville’s homoerotic novella), poet/novelist William Plomer (the Church Parables and opera Gloriana). On one level, Britten’s works encompass a veritable anthology of texts by great gay or bisexual authors: Ovid (Six Metamorphoses After Ovid for Oboe, with quotations from the Metamorphoses), Shakespeare (opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Michelangelo (song cycle Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo), Friedrich Hölderlin (song cycle Six Hölderlin Fragments), Herman Melville (opera Billy Budd), Rimbaud (song cycle Les Illuminations), Henry James (operas The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave), Thomas Mann (opera Death in Venice), Wilfred Owen (choral War Requiem), Bertolt Brecht (cantata Children’s Crusade), Lytton Strachey (opera Gloriana, from Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex), T.S. Eliot (vocal piece The Journey of the Magi (Canticle IV)); also arguably John Donne (song cycle Holy Sonnets of John Donne), William Blake (songs “Elegy” and “The Sick Rose” in Serenade, and song cycle Songs and Proverbs of William Blake), Alfred Tennyson (songs “Nocturne” and “Blow, Bugle, Blow” in Serenade), and Edith Sitwell (vocal piece Still Falls the Rain (Canticle III) and choral Praise we great men). Britten has effectively outlined (and in some instances tacitly outed) the gay literary tradition, while offering his own – unique and often brilliantly perceptive – musical critique of it. Britten is not only one of the great composers, but one of the great gay composers (here is my brief essay on why an artist’s sexual orientation is important).

Besides his enduring love for Pears, it has been revealed in recent years – long after this film was released in 1980 – that Britten had a series of infatuations with adolescent boys. You can learn more about these platonic experiences in Britten’s Children (link to Wikipedia entry), John Bridcut’s scholarly 2006 study that has been widely acclaimed, including by the Britten-Pears Foundation. (By the way, one of the boys was David Hemmings, who at age 12 created the role of Miles in Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw (1954) — and who, 12 years later, starred in Antonioni’s era-defining film, Blow-Up.) Bridcut explores why Britten is arguably the finest composer to ever write for children’s voices; as the composer once revealed, “It’s because I’m still thirteen.” Less joyously, it’s not too much of a stretch to see this as yet a further instance of Britten’s feeling cut off not only from straitlaced society, but from what he saw as innocence – perhaps even Innocence (capital I) – itself. This brings us, at last, to the significance of the title, “A Time There Was…”

Nowhere in the documentary is the title explained (A Time There Was sounds like a movie about folk singers – say, The Weavers’ Wasn’t That a Time!), but as with so much else in this film, it is subtly right, and shows Palmer’s deep sympathy with Britten. The phrase recalls Britten’s yearning for a time of strong innocence, before we become conscious – and self-conscious – and when we are, if only perhaps poetically, at our most resilient. The phrase appears in the last of the eight Thomas Hardy poems that Britten set in his song cycle, Winter Words (1954). Clearly the phrase, and the its context, had personal significance to Britten, who used it as the title of his last orchestral work, Suite on English Folk Tunes, A Time There Was…(1974), composed two years before his death. It also brings to mind Britten’s rueful, yet most often-quoted, remark: “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.” Since he was already then gravely ill, could he also have thought of it as his own epitaph?

Here is Hardy’s rueful poem, with its original ‘descending’ line form, from the 1909 collection Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses [free online]. Hardy is best known as a novelist, for 1878’s The Return of the Native, 1896’s Jude the Obscure.

“Before Life and After”

By Thomas Hardy,

   A time there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell –
   Before the birth of consciousness,
      When all went well.

   None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
   None cared whatever crash or cross
      Brought wrack to things.

   If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
   If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
      No sense was stung.

   But the disease of feeling germed,
And primal rightness took the tinct of wrong;
   Ere nescience shall be reaffirmed
      How long, how long?

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Opening Credit:

  • Directed by Tony Palmer

Closing Credits (complete, transcribed from the film):

  • [No credits for writer or producer — presumably Mr. Palmer being modest]
  • Associate Producer: Donald Mitchell
  • Edited by Graham Bunn
  • Research: Jill Burrows and Annunziata Asquith
  • Camera: Nick Knowland
  • Sound Recording: Brian Saunders
  • Sound Dubbing: Bill Rowe with Ray Merrin
  • “Archive material generously provided by BBC TELEVISION — directed by Humphrey Burton, John Schlesinger, Basil Coleman, Brian Large & David Attenborough, William Servaes, David Rothman, Brigitte Steiner, Susan and Jack Phipps, Isador Caplan, Paul Rotha, Faber Music Ltd., Boosey & Hawkes Ltd., The Britten Estate & The Britten-Pears Library, Decca Record Company Ltd., Sir Edward Lewis Foundation, British Transport Films, The National Film Archive, Arup Associates”

Britten’s Music Used in this Film:

  • Solo Instrument: Nocturnal After John Dowland for Guitar (1963)
  • Orchestral: Sinfonia Da Requiem (1940), Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946)
  • Orchestral Film Scores: Night Mail, The Way to the Sea (both 1936)
  • Ballet: Prince of the Pagodas (1957)
  • Song Cycles: Les Illuminations (1939), Nocturne (1958)
  • Cantata: Phaedra (1975)
  • Choral: War Requiem (1961), Overture: The Building of the House (1970)
  • Children’s Opera: Noye’s Fludde (1958)
  • Church Parables: Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966)
  • Operas: Peter Grimes (1945), The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Billy Budd (1951), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Death In Venice (1973)

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People in the Film

  • Benjamin Britten
  • Peter Pears
  • Janet Baker (singer)
  • Steuart Bedford (conductor, English Chamber Orchestra)
  • Leonard Bernstein (composer/conductor)
  • Rudolf Bing (opera producer)
  • Julian Bream (guitarist)
  • Robert Britten (brother)
  • Barbara Britten (sister)
  • Heather Harper (singer)
  • Elsie Hockey (cousin)
  • Imogen Holst (Britten’s musical assitant, daughter of composer Gustav Holst, The Planets)
  • Miss Hudson (housekeeper)
  • Henry Moore (sculptor)
  • Sviatoslav Richter (pianist)
  • Paul Rotha (documentary filmmaker)
  • David Rothman (American friend and early patron of Britten, during his years on Long Island NY)
  • Beata Sauerlander (daughter of the Mayer family, of Long Island, Britten’s close friends)
  • John Shirley-Quirk (singer)
  • Rosamund Strode (Britten’s musical assistant)
  • Rita Thomson (nurse during Britten’s last illness)
  • Beth Welford (one of Britten’s sisters)

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LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim's Film Website
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim’s Film Website

Reviewed November 1, 2007 / Revised October 23, 2020

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