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  • Popularization or Perversion?Folklore and Folksong in Britten’s Paul Bunyan (1941)
  • Suzanne Robinson (bio)

Every day America’s destroyed and re-created,America is what you do,America is I and you,America is what you choose to make it.

W. H. Auden, Paul Bunyan (1941)

In March 1940, just over a year after W. H. Auden had immigrated to the United States, Time magazine described him as “probably the most spectacular English poet alive.”1 Benjamin Britten followed Auden across the Atlantic, arriving in New York in June 1939, and was soon recognized as one of England’s “most promising young men of music.”2 Due to their reputations, and because they chose to dramatize the life of a much-loved American folk hero, their first operatic collaboration was eagerly anticipated. Yet the premiere of Paul Bunyan in New York City in May 1941 is generally agreed to have been a critical failure.3 As well as seizing on the episodic nature of the drama and the obvious lack of a coherent narrative, almost all of the critics commented on the authors’ inability to capture the essence of an inherently American subject. Irving Kolodin for the New York Sun concluded that “neither composer nor poet (now living here) had penetrated far into the sturdy Americanism of this legend.”4 Olin Downes for the New York Times conceded that it was not to be expected [End Page 1] that “a modern English poet of [Auden’s] nature and antecedents would impart a very characteristic flavor to an essentially American legend.”5 Fellow composer Virgil Thomson was the most brutal. The “subject” of the Auden-Britten operetta, he wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, “is not Bunyan at all, nor even the loggers and farmers of the Northwest that it purports to depict. Its subject is literature itself.”6

Auden’s undoubtedly sincere and unashamedly intellectual portrait of modern America made for clumsy theater, but rather than reiterate reasons for this judgment, my concern here is that the very act of creating a work on an American subject unavoidably embroiled its authors in current debates about how (or even whether) notions of America might be represented in music. Led to some degree by Auden, Britten became enmeshed in both his published comments and in this work in what Annegret Fauser, in her study of wartime American music, describes as “thickets of identity politics.”7 Whereas it might appear, as Paul Kildea believes, that while living in the United States Britten “had no cause to further [and] no protest march to join,” the obstacles he encountered as an English immigrant led him to take a public stance against national prejudice and cultural insularity.8 His views were most explicitly stated in an article in the New York Times, while in the music of Paul Bunyan his fundamentally internationalist outlook manifested itself in two ways: in a stylistic pluralism and in the apparent rejection of American folksong, then the hallmark of American national identity in works by composers such as Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. Yet while Britten disparaged the use of folksong as a tool of nationalist propaganda, and while the absence of folksong in Bunyan arguably undermined its depiction of nineteenth-century American loggers and farmers, in what follows I will argue that Britten did nevertheless demonstrate his awareness of the literature of American folksong and its performance practice and that he did, even if belatedly, acknowledge the “rootedness” that folksong represented, and not just for Americans.9

Paul Bunyan Folklore

Within weeks of Britten’s arrival in the United States, the new head of Serious Music at Boosey & Hawkes, Hans Heinsheimer, proposed to Britten that he write an operetta for schools along the lines of Copland’s Second Hurricane, a work that Britten knew, since Copland himself had played through it on a visit to Britten’s home in Suffolk in 1938 (“I love the 2nd Hurricane,” he later wrote to Copland).10 Britten had already composed a set of songs for schoolchildren, his Friday Afternoons (1933–35), and this initial idea was encouraged by Max Winkler, the firm’s “king of the school bands” whose job it...


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