The 2018 Object of the Year competition closed this morning after a final, busy weekend of voting! This years competition looked at objects which hold Hidden Histories, stories that perhaps aren’t obvious at first glance.
An object with a Hidden History can be anything from objects which are rarely displayed, (but that have a fascinating tale to tell), to objects connected to the history of underrepresented communities. The objects entered this year represented hidden stories from military and maritime history, abandoned railway lines, Womens History and objects that when in use where hidden from view or became hidden as conditions around them changed.
This years winner comes from the Red House in Aldeburgh and is an early draft of the incredibly moving poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen. The draft of this poem shows a rare glimpse into the creative process; multiple crossed out words show the author developing his work, crafting the piece to show the horror of war and the hidden costs to the young men who went to fight and the families and friends they left behind.
It was given to Benjamin Britten by Wilfred’s brother Harold in gratitude for the composer’s setting of Wilfred’s poetry. This work had added resonance for Harold, whose brother was killed in action only days before the 1918 Armistice. The draft shows us how hard the poet worked to achieve what he wanted to say; to simply but powerfully symbolise what he called ‘the pity of war’.
About the object
This November will mark the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War I, after four years and between fifteen and nineteen million deaths.
Despite the years that have passed since its ending and the many conflicts that took place in them, the First World War is remembered with particular intensity: it was the point in history when hand-to-hand combat met mechanised industrial warfare, when men armed with machine guns and artillery capable of killing many people at a stroke faced each other across a few yards of pitted ground. In the United Kingdom, the unique horrors of trench warfare brought forth an outpouring of writing that seared the war into the national memory, making it emblematic of all wars.
It is, therefore, not surprising that when, forty years later, Benjamin Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral it was to the First World War that he looked for imagery. The new cathedral replaced the medieval church destroyed by bombing in 1940 (and left to stand as a burnt-out shell next to the new structure) and its completion was marked by the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem.
In the piece, Britten juxtaposed the Latin texts of the Requiem Mass with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the British poet who served on the Western Front and was killed a few days before the Armistice. Summarising his work, in words that Britten quoted on the title page of the score, Owen wrote ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.’ For Britten, a life-long pacifist, and for Coventry, a city mourning thousands of its people, the focus of the event was likewise on pity and mourning: Owen’s poems were a perfect fit for the occasion.
The first Owen poem to appear in the War Requiem is one of his most famous, the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth, performed as a tenor solo. Britten’s composition was a public statement, a milestone in the way that the country was healing and rebuilding after the recent conflict, in line with his belief that music should move beyond the concert hall and speak to the entire public. In the wake of the work’s premiere, the poet’s brother Harold Owen contacted Britten and, in a wonderful gesture, presented him with an early draft of Anthem for Doomed Youth in gratitude for ‘your superbly beautiful Requiem’.
The poem itself enacts the whole process of death and remembrance, moving from depicting the way that soldiers ‘die as cattle’, in industrial quantities and without ceremony to mark their passing, to focusing on those at home who have to live on without them, mourning with ‘each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.’ In this manuscript we see Owen drafting and redrafting, refining and adjusting the wording as gradually the familiar text swims into focus.
The manuscript forms a treasured part of the archive at the Britten-Pears Foundation: it is an honour to be its custodians, and it is all the more resonant in this year of all years, as we approach the centenaries both of the Armistice, and, days before, of the death of its author who would never see the war’s end.
The manuscript is available to see at the Archive during weekday opening hours until Sunday 28 October
About the Britten-Pears Foundation
The Britten-Pears Foundation was established to promote the musical legacy of the composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. The Foundation is based at The Red House, their former home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Visitors can explore Britten’s home; visit his library, studio and gallery spaces showcasing our extensive collection as well as 5 acres of gardens.
The Foundation maintains one of the UK’s most important centres for music and artistic research which have been recognised through Arts Council England’s Designation scheme. There is also an extensive fine art collection and a large collection of objects and possessions accumulated over Britten and Pears’ lifetimes.
You can find out more at brittenpears.org