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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River

Choreographer Mark Morris, who has captivated audiences for over 35 years with his unwavering commitment to music, returns to BAM March 15—19 with a career-spanning double bill that perfectly embodies his trademark blend of emotion and rhythm, movement and music. In the first act, the vocalists and orchestra of the MMDG Music Ensemble unite onstage to tell Benjamin Britten’s haunting parable of maternal grief in Curlew River. Below, scholar Hugh Macdonald reviews the origins of Britten’s stirring (and oft-overlooked) music-drama.

TMC Fellows perform Curlew River at Tangelwood. Photo: Hilary Scott
Dictionaries of opera all have an entry “Curlew River,” but it is not really an opera. Britten called it a “parable,” along with its two successors The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son. Designed for performance in church and not in the theater, these three works fall in the sequence of Britten’s operas between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Owen Wingrave, and belong to an important phase in his life when he was re-thinking the issues of music theater and, more broadly, the direction of his style. All three are presented in a Christian context, and although the two later works are based on biblical stories, the origin of Curlew River lies far from the Christian tradition in which Britten was brought up.

In the winter of 1955-56, Britten and the tenor Peter Pears, his life partner, went on a long concert tour to the Far East. In February they visited Japan for the first time. Britten’s friend William Plomer, who had written the libretto of his opera Gloriana in 1952 and who had lived in Japan before the war, urged them to see a Nô play. Within three days of their arrival they went to see the 15th-century play Sumidagawa by Juro Motomasa. With no scenery, very few characters, and the strange noises that emerged from the seated chorus and from the flute and two drums, they were both at first suppressing giggles. But soon Britten found himself transfixed by the solemnity and the dramatic power of the action, even though he could not understand a word. They went to see it a second time a week later, and returned to Aldeburgh with the beginning of a plan.

As usual with Britten, the gestation of his own Sumidagawa was long and slow. Plomer was keen to write the libretto, but the composer had a full schedule of commissions and tours ahead. When he needed a new opera with which to open the new theatre at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1960, a Japanese drama clearly would not do, whereas the masterly A Midsummer Night’s Dream was perfectly judged for the occasion. What forced the Nô idea from the back of his mind to the front was the decision to present it as if it were being played in an English monastery and to translate it completely into a Christian setting. This would explain an all-male cast, even in the central role of the Madwoman. The Fenlands, where the action is set and where the Curlew River flows, is the low-lying part of East Anglia (Britten’s homeland) that was once swampy and difficult to traverse.

He finally embarked on the composition in January 1964, taking an apartment in the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice for the purpose. In the church of San Giorgio Maggiore he heard plainchant being sung and was impressed by the solemn ritual of unfolding robes from a linen chest, an action he incorporated into the opening scene of the new work. Composing was “hellishly hard to start with,” he wrote, but he soon made good progress and by April 2nd it was finished. The first performance took place in Orford Church on June 13, 1964, as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. Rehearsals had been stressful because of the unusual layout of the work. Everyone was nervous “in case somebody started giggling at Peter dressed up as a woman,” but nobody did, indeed the audience was profoundly moved. Unless they had been to Japan, they had never experienced anything like it. The performance was later repeated in Southwark Cathedral in London, and the original cast and musicians made a recording the following summer. The two other church parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son, followed in 1966 and 1968, respectively.

Photo: Hilary Scott
In searching for a way to present the drama without making it a Japanese pastiche, Britten and Plomer had settled on a plan of an all-male body of singers—monks in medieval England—who enact the drama of the Madwoman and the Ferryman accompanied by a group of seven instrumentalists. The flute and drums were derived from Japanese instruments, but the horn, viola, double bass, harp, and organ constitute a very unusual group, all used as individual color and line without much attempt to blend or combine them as an ensemble. Britten’s style became markedly thinner and more linear in the early 1960s, as for example in the Cello Symphony composed for Rostropovich in 1963, and Curlew River took this process further by relying very largely on heterophony—the technique of allowing different voices or instruments to offer the same line independently and at different speeds. The effect is often that of singers out of sync, or straying from the beat. Everything is linear and horizontal; vertical issues (harmony) are secondary. There is no conductor, so there is no beat, but Britten usually has these moments resolved so that the voices at least end their phrases together. Britten described the tempo as a “kind of controlled floating.”

The melodic lines are often reminiscent of, indeed derived from, plainchant, and we hear the chant “Te lucis ante terminum” at the beginning and end as the monks process in and then finally out. They also sing “Custodes hominum psallimus” in the scene by the tomb. This gives a clear Christian aura to the representation. The flute and drums are mostly associated with the Madwoman, the flute also representing birds, and the Abbot and monks who are not playing roles participate as commentary, often in independent music. The organ’s role is to provide high clusters of dissonant notes similar to the effect of the Japanese shô, a type of mouth organ that Britten heard in Tokyo. The Ferryman introduces himself to a forceful entry from the horn, and the Traveler is supported at his first appearance by double bass and harp. Britten’s genius for simple but effective suggestion is heard when the ferry casts off from the shore and a series of glissandi, up and down, conveys the travelers across the river.

Sometimes we are reminded of traditional opera, as for example when everyone insists that the Madwoman entertain them with her singing in order to allow her to board the boat, or when they all realize that the boy was her child. It requires fine singing and acting, but not of a kind one might expect in Verdi. As in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, the action is told at one remove, as though in a mirror, yet it is none the less powerful for that. It requires the attention not just of our ears, our eyes, and our minds; our faith and our conscience are both called upon to participate too.

Mark Morris: Two Operas, An evening of Britten and Purcell comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House March 15—19, and great tickets are still available.

For many years Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis, Hugh Macdonald has written extensively on music from Mozart to Shostakovich and is currently writing a book on the operas of Saint-Saëns.

Program note written originally for the Tanglewood program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, copyright © Boston Symphony Orchestra, Inc. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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