Thursday, 12 September 2013

A visit to the British Library: Propaganda and Benjamin Britten

I had wanted to have a look around the Propaganda Exhibition at the British Library since it opened and took my chance today, in this its last week. In the event I had mixed feelings. There is a lot of stylised information, quotations on mannequins largely aphorisms explaining what 'propaganda' means (the term comes from the Catholic Church who set up an office in the early 17th century for 'propagating the faith'). The point about the nature of propaganda is that one is never sure to which degree the information is original, authentic or simply true: with a broad international base I found that I was ignorant of a lot of the background to slogans, sounds and artefacts; in addition the unforgivably poorly-lit text notes with exhibits seemed to have been ignored - never was such annotation needed more!

Still, it was nice to see a constructive analysis of the London Olympics (2012) on video, and other footage: a 1940s mashup of Leni Riefensthal's The Triumph Of the Will with The Lambeth Walk is a particular delight.

Also in the British Library at the moment is a modest exhibition (in the Folio Society atrium) dedicated to English composer Benjamin Britten, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated in November. Britten travelled to America in 1939, in part to escape the antagonistic atmosphere for conscientious objectors to the war, yet still engaging in propaganda of a sort by writing a march for the Peace Pledge Union (the score is on display).

Back in the UK, and his reputation established, he wrote the War Requiem for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This was premiered in the space in 1962 and the exhibition has an autograph score and a press cutting from its first, positive reception. In October I am taking part in a trip to perform the War Requiem in Shanghai, which - 50 years after the Coventry premiere - will be the first performance of the piece in China.

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