Benjamin BRITTEN & Jacques COULARDEAU @Academia.edu & @slideshare.net (73)
Britten’s Operas Love Rejection Death
Published on Dec 4, 2016
The first task was to gather what can be called opera. Quite a few vocal works are not classified in that genre because they are considered as oratorios as if an oratorio was not an opera (a musical work entirely sung generally in two tones, prosodic and psalmodic). That goes back to the Old Testament which is divided in its accompanying music, written in the margins, in these two tones. It is of course present in any oratorio, starting in the 13th century in Beauvais Cathedral with Ludus Danielis.
The opera is only the transfer of this religious musical genre into the secular field. The opera is nothing but a secular oratorio. And can we see a musical difference between operas and oratorios in Handel and are Bach’s Passions oratorios or operas? Some purist will tell you the opera was invented in Italy, etc. Purity leads to closure. This geographic definition of the opera was introduced in a time when we did not know the musical accompaniment of the Old Testament probably codified by the music school set up by King David. At that time too Ludus Danielis was unknown and Italy was torn apart by two styles, one favored by the Roman Popes and remaining very narrowly religious and traditional, and another secular and bound to flourish in the Italian opera houses that were still to be invented and built in the 16th-17th centuries when that artistic quarrel between the Church and society was starting to rage with Monteverdi.
Anyway it does not apply to Benjamin Britten for the simple reason that he does not differentiate the recitative from the arias. The music is the same in tone and style from beginning to end. Then the difference between operas and oratorios, if there is one, is purely because of the religious dimension of oratorios. That is light and semantic.
You will hereafter find my notes on the 21 works I classify in this field, in chronological order, some small, some big, some famous, some less well-known, but all in a distinctive musical style that is unique and yet that is also very closely articulated on the music of the 20th century. Benjamin Britten knew his classics, even the modern classics of his time, and borrowing or imitating are fundamental: he is able to use the style of anyone and turns it into his own style that is first of all transformative.
The second point to add here is the fact many of his works are all male and use many boys’ choirs. The modern tendency though is to use treble choirs including girls. This is, when it is done, a treacherous breach of the British tradition of all male choirs and boys’ choirs that developed and prospered in boys’ schools and universities with countertenors cultivated and respected even after these universities were finally opened to women. In fact to use mixed choirs instead of boys’ choirs is a sexist position that negates the originality of the British tradition. Other composers (and Benjamin Britten in some works) vastly composed for mixed choirs or even for girls’ choirs, and that is legitimate.
My last remark will be I have tried to capture the original intended meaning of these works that systematically present some outsider, stranger, foreigner, outcast in central position, and the boy who is the main character is often the victim of mistreatment by society or some adults, mostly men. It is a trend to consider this is to be connected with Benjamin Britten’s gayness. I think this is excessive even if this gayness gave Benjamin Britten a direct taste of being excluded, marginalized or kept under suspicion. I will rarely allude to this gayness and I will try to avoid seeing gay innuendo everywhere.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
0. Introduction p. 2
1. Paul Bunyan 1941–1976 p. 5
2. Peter Grimes 1945 p. 13
3. Rape of Lucretia 1946 p. 18
4. Albert Herring 1947 p. 23
5. Saint Nicolas 1948 p. 30
6. The Little Sweep 1949 p. 33
7. Billy Budd 1951 p. 39
8. Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac 1952 p. 43
9. Gloriana 1953 p. 45
10. Turn of the Screw 1954 p. 51
11. Prince of Pagodas 1957 p. 74
12. Noye’s Fludde 1958 p. 75
13. Midsummer Night’s Dream 1960 p. 79
14. War Requiem 1962 p. 92
15. Curlew River 1964 p. 104
16. Burning Fiery Furnace 1966 p. 109
17. The Golden Vanity 1966 p. 119
18. Prodigal Son 1968 p. 120
19. The Children’s Crusade 1969 p. 124
20. Owen Wingrave 1970 p. 126
21. Death in Venice 1973 p. 136
Research Interests: Music, Music History, Jewish Studies, Death Studies, Children and Families, War Studies, Opera, Death and Burial (Archaeology), Philosophy of Love, Ideologies of Motherhood, Masculinity, Fatherhood, Boys, Child Soldiers, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Psychopomps and ópera