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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Billy Budd: Britten’s Musical Morality Play

by Paul Crabtree

Photo: Alastair Muir, courtesy Glyndebourne Festival Opera
At the beginning of his career in the early 1930s, two decades before composing Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten collaborated on documentary films as a regular contributor to the government financed General Post Office Film Unit. Britten provided each short GPO documentary with a soundtrack to "sell" the scene, to intensify the emotional content, to confirm or contradict the meaning of the image, and to add impact to the events and characters.

Night Mail (1936), a promotion for the London to Scotland mail train, pairs WH Auden’s spoken rhythmic poetry with Britten’s musical evocation of the steam locomotive tearing up the track to its destination. Britten’s mail train comes alive with its whistles and its rickety rhythmic drive, a perfect accompaniment to the visual image and poetry.

Britten’s other early compositional output is a pleasant and innovative mix of concert and Gebrauchsmusik for an inter-war audience, and it wasn’t until Peter Grimes (opus 33, 1945) that he was encouraged to display so consistently the genius for mimetic and evocative music that his experience in film music promised.

This first opera is full of the sounds of a small fishing village, its seascape, its work songs, its religious life. Building upon his skills as a naturalistic musical narrator, it expertly stylizes the sounds of a close-knit coastal community. It is also made all the more intense because the plot is obliquely autobiographical.

While the Sadler’s Wells premiere was an indisputable triumph, the company was not pleased that its first peacetime opera was by a 31-year-old homosexual pacifist. Eager to cash in on the success, and putting art ahead of political scruples, the Royal Opera House gave performances in 1947, and then in 1950 offered Britten a commission for a new opera. Billy Budd (1951) is another equally self-revealing and even larger scale work. (The original four acts were reduced to two in 1960.)

 The opera’s descriptive music is of the sound of an 18th-century frigate and its testosterone-heavy crew confined onboard ship. There are no female voices. Its work songs are lugubrious and oppressive (“O heave, o heave away, heave”) and the air is thick with the sounds of drums and whistles, punishment and battle.

But Britten’s music also exposes and explores the inner life of the characters and situations with more complex musical similes. In Billy Budd, a triad becomes the symbol of a moral position, and the establishment of a single tonal home note implies that there is, at least temporarily, moral certainty. Billy’s music is predominantly major and innocent, the dark and moody Master-at-Arms Claggart’s is minor and ponderously malevolent.

Captain Vere’s dilemma is caught by the sinuous pair of violin lines of the opera’s opening that outline two keys simultaneously, expressing the ambiguity of unresolved perspective. Bb major and B minor, dexterously superimposed upon each other, deftly conjure the incompatible nature of the parallel truths with which the Captain and the audience will be confronted.

The opening violin lines occupy two tonal/moral worlds, but insistently return to the keys’ shared note, D, offering a musical détente to the musical conflict. This D will become Vere’s refuge and will end the opera, sung unaccompanied and unresolved.

Melodically, while there are no specific melodic leitmotivs, Britten exploits short tags that differentiate among the characters. Rising fifths portray goodness, while falling fourths (their musical opposite) generally express bad; Billy’s proud interview with the press gang officers uses repeated rising fifths—“Billy Budd, sir! Able Seaman!”—while Claggart’s disingenuous “I heard your honour” is two falling fourths.

The triad’s power as locus of moral certainty intensifies when Vere announces the court’s verdict to the prisoner offstage, unseen. A string of slow and unrelated major and minor triads with unpredictable orchestration (all strings, or all wind, or all brass) and volatile dynamics (suddenly quiet, suddenly loud) expresses the irresolution of the Captain’s shifting moral compass, as if he is wrestling his conflicted conscience into some comfortable tonality. It is dramatically puzzling not to show this moment on stage but rather to leave it to the orchestra. Nonetheless, the moment’s descriptive power is inescapable.

Paul Crabtree is a composer and teacher in Oakland, CA.

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