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I’m so glad that I watched Tony Palmer’s “A Time There Was,”
his 1979 film about composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976),
released in 2006 under the Isolde Films/KULTUR label. This
101-minute DVD portrait was as good as any biography
I’ve seen devoted to a composer and/or musician, particularly
because much of the narrative was provided by Britten’s
longtime muse and companion, tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986).
In fact, it was Pears who asked Tony Palmer (1941 – ) to
helm a film in Britten’s memory. Having seen some of his
portraits of other composers, including John Adams,
Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan-Williams, I can understand
why his filmmaking is held in high esteem.

As with his other biographies, Palmer used interview footage
with close associates to enliven his subject. Among others,
I was treated to reminiscences from Britten’s siblings, his
housekeeper, Miss Hudson, and Rita Thomson, the nurse
who cared for him near the end of his life. In addition to Pears,
other musical luminaries weighing in for this film included conductor/composer/teacher Leonard Bernstein,
guitarist Julian Bream, composer/conductor Imogen Holst
and former General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera,
Rudolph Bing. Performance film clips of Britten’s works
were interspersed throughout and featured artists,
such as mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker and
pianist Sviatoslav Richter, among others.

In fact, the film is also replete with both black-and-white
and color footage of Britten himself in domestic and
professional capacities, thereby providing a well-rounded
picture of the man. While watching him disclose his working
methods and musical inspirations, I felt that I was taken
into his mind and soul.

At first, I thought it was unfortunate that the majority
of the musical examples were vocal and felt that more
of his instrumental pieces might have balanced this
biography. However, when reconsidering those works
thought to be Britten’s greatest, I realized that the
majority of them tended to involve the human voice,
in some capacity. This minor quibble aside, Tony Palmer
deserves to be commended for doing such a fine job
with this film. I’d give it an “A.”

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