Preliminary design for Benjamin Britten coin, watercolour, 2013.
Can a coin sing a song? It can try. Asked by the Royal Mint to design a 50p coin in that oddest of shapes I was thrilled at the prospect yet daunted by the problem of what should appear: the Queen is where she should be and I only have to deal with the obverse.
The idea of illustration soon evaporates as thoughts of Suffolk seas and lone figures on a beach etc. parade their banality. A portrait is not worth considering. Heads is heads and for kings and queens and tails should tell tales of the land over which they reign, and be part of our house of memory. A double headed coin cannot be usefully tossed, and in any case Benjamin Britten’s head lacks the iconic immediacy of, say, that of Einstein.
What I wanted the coin to speak of was music. Thus the stave soon entered the design, in this case the double stave of piano scores since Britten was an eloquent pianist. I found that his name married well with the stave which solved the first problem.
The natural accompaniment with Britten’s passion for poetry as our preeminent composer of opera and song, was some kind of key quotation. I first thought for personal reasons of the Spring Symphony in which fifty years ago with Britten himself conducting, I had sung as a member of the Philharmonia Chorus. The words which however eventually suggested themselves, come from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. What better clarion call for a musical anniversary could there be than “Blow, bugle, blow: set the wild echoes flying”.
It occurred to me that a present day function of coinage could be to point people in the direction of a richer experience. If one googles “Blow, bugle, blow etc” one instantly meets a fine poem by Tennyson. If one adds the name Britten one can within a few seconds be listening on You Tube to it being sung by Britten’s life partner Peter Pears at the height of his powers.
A mere 50p coin can in this way become an active rather than a passive instrument.
Aldeburgh, 13th June. During a convivial supper at The Red House after the world premiere of a Harrison Birtwistle song cycle (brilliantly performed by Mark Padmore) Colin Matthews bangs the traditional spoon on the traditional glass. This brings a short silence in which I can speak a little and present to the Britten archive my final drawing for the coin [general murmur of approval from gathered musical luminaries]. I hope it will hang here in the house which Britten shared with Peter Pears. Meanwhile, outdoors on the shingle below they are rehearsing for Grimes on the Beach.