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auden’s anonymous songs for lenin

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Amazing find described in today’s TLS. As, in David Collard’s words, a “trial run” for his work on Night Mail with Benjamin Britten, Auden did the sub- and intertitles for Vertov’s Three Songs for Lenin for its first ever showing at Ivor Montagu’s New Gallery Cinema.

The supporting programme at the forthcoming October screening would include a dazzling abstract work by Len Lye, Edgar Anstey’s influential Housing Problems, and the premiere of the experimental Coal Face, the first collaboration between Auden and the promising young composer Benjamin Britten. The main feature, though, was to be the world premiere of a Russian propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Stalin to mark the tenth anniversary of Lenin’s death. The director was Denis Kaufman (1896–1954), better known by his adopted name Dziga Vertov (“Spinning Top”). His new film was called Three Songs of Lenin and was structured around peasant folk songs eulogizing the dead Soviet leader and promoting Stalin as his political heir. Montagu was busy arranging subtitles and intertitles, and soon realized that the songs deserved a more poetic treatment in English. He needed advice, and urgently. What about that chap working for the Post Office?

In December last year I was working through the Ivor Montagu papers, which entered the BFI’s Special Collections archive in 1985. My main interest was in the first screening of Coal Face, but the next item in the pile was a stiff white envelope that contained a typed note: “The following titles are ‘verse’ titles to be held up for a few days while wording is checked in consultation with Auden”, dozens of scruffy typescript sheets in an unfamiliar format, and three manuscript pages in Auden’s best handwriting, blue ink on cheap unwatermarked paper, held together by a paper clip, a 1930s original by the look of it. The Montagu collection is one of the most frequently consulted in the BFI’s archive, but until now no one seemed to have recognized the importance of this material. Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, confirmed that these poems had never been published and that this was a significant find.

I’d say! And look! I’m going to try to make this one…

Soon we shall have the chance to judge for ourselves, thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of Nathalie Morris, the Special Collections curator at the BFI, and her colleagues. Highlights from the original programme, including a rare print of Three Songs for Lenin, will be given a special screening at the BFI Southbank (formerly National Film Theatre) in London at 6.15 on June 8. Auden’s verses will be read by the actor Simon Callow and for the first time in almost seventy-five years Uncle Wiz and the Spinning Top will be reunited.

The titles themselves aren’t really all that interesting. But what is interesting is the thought that Auden must have had Vertov and the idea of anonymity in mind when writing the fantastic stuff that’s in Night Mail.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 21, 2009 at 10:23 pm

Posted in auden, movies

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