In January 1956, on a visit to Tokyo, Britten saw a Nô-drama for the first time. In fact, he saw two different performances of the same play – Sumidagawa. The effect on the 42-year-old composer was profound. As he wrote later, 'The whole occasion made a tremendous impression upon me. The simple, touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech and singing which, with only three instruments, made up the strange music - it offered a totally new ‘operatic’ experience.' And it was this very play, Sumidagawa, that eight years later formed the essence of Britten’s first of three ‘Church Parables’, Curlew River, mostly written while on holiday in Venice in 1964.
But it was in Orford Church, in the Fens of East Anglia, only five miles from where Britten lived, that the work had its world première at the Aldeburgh Festival later that year. Following the colossal scale of the War Requiem (1962) and the ferocity of the Cello Symphony (written in 1963), Curlew River was at first a shock, until it was realised that it was everything Britten strove for as a practical musician: extreme economy of means, both musically and dramatically; stylisation bordering on the abstract; a preoccupation with the loss of innocence; suitable for performance near home, in the countryside and buildings that meant so much to him (the concert hall at Snape was not to be opened for another three years).
Britten was enabled to realise these ambitions with the assistance of two remarkable men, both of whom became great friends of mine – Colin Graham (I made a last film with him about André Previn not long before Graham died), and John Culshaw, who later became the BBC Head of Music and so launched one of my first films, All My Loving. Before joining the BBC, Culshaw had been the chief recording producer of the DECCA record company, and as such had virtually invented the art of stereo recording, heard to such glorious effect in the first complete studio recording of Wagner’s Ring, conducted by Solti. Later it was Culshaw who introduced me to Wolfgang Wagner and who inspired me to make my film about Wagner with Richard Burton, and it was Solti who conducted the music.
More importantly, perhaps, it was Culshaw who had persuaded Britten to enter the recording studio and commit to disc more or less everything he had ever written, recordings that have possibly been equalled since, although never bettered. (I have used those recordings endlessly in my films). And although Britten and Culshaw occasionally had to resort to Walthamstow Assembly Hall or the long-gone Kingsway Hall in London, if possible Britten preferred, once again, to work nearer home.
Thus the remarkable first recording of Curlew River was made in Orford Church where it had first been performed the previous year. The recording equipment and its control room were in a nearby disused abattoir, the Green Room an adjacent pub and the canteen the local oyster bar. So when the second Parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace, written in 1966, came to be recorded a year later, there was no question as to where that was going to happen.
Once again it was Culshaw who persuaded Britten that maybe a film of this recording might be of some interest to a wider public. Britten was reluctant, fearing that the presence of film cameras might disturb his concentration and that of the performers. Culshaw, however, was nothing if not persistent.
And it was Culshaw’s friendship with Humphrey Burton, then BBC Television’s Head of Music & Arts (they had both worked on the film about the recording in Vienna of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung conducted by Solti, as had I) that enabled the BBC to gain access to Orford Church with me, once again, initally acting as Humphrey’s assistant.
The bottom line is that what Burton and Culshaw achieved, with a little help from me, was the longest single piece of film of Britten working. For this we should be eternally grateful. Unfortunately it was a year or so before the advent of colour television cameras, but the result although in black and white makes, in my view, even 45 years later, compelling viewing.