Sunday, April 10, 2016


William Plomer, Librettos of two church operas by Benjamin Britten (1966-1968)


William Plomer in this libretto uses a famous and common episode of the Old Testament (Daniel 3) to build his story in his own poetical style. The fact that he uses three Israelites in this story is not significant since it cannot be anything else. It is the trinity of God from the Christian point of View, but before that it was the trinity that became the symbol of wisdom of Judaism, I mean Jewish wisdom, Solomon’s wisdom, when doubled to six, when that six is twice three, David’s star.

What is essential from my point of view in this tale is the status of foreigner of these three wise Jewish men, because they have to be wise. They are foreigners in Babylon and as such are treated very badly, in an unacceptable way from their Jewish point of view. First their Jewish names, three of course, are replaced by three Sumerian names, which is highly unacceptable. Second they are requested to drink wine and to eat meat that are certainly not kosher and they refuse. And finally, third request, they are supposed to worship a Sumerian god represented in a golden statue, which goes against Mosaic law that forbids any icon, any material representation of God, and certainly not made of gold (the golden calf of course).

So they have to be sacrificed and thrown into a burning furnace. But from three they turn to four since an angel gets to them and protects them. Miracle, miracle, when you believe they seem and sound natural if not even logical. But it is a good story, especially since four is not basically Jewish. It is basically Christian and represents the crucifixion which brings salvation. Salvation through the ordeal of a symbolical death. Jesus is lucky after all. Dying on the cross was like being reborn and humanity with him.

This Christian symbolism read into the Jewish tale is typical of the Christian reading of the Old Testament in the Middle Ages: Systematic triptychs were built with a reference in the Old Testament, an episode in the life of Jesus and then a third element widening the approach. For example the first choir tapestry of La Chaise Dieu (15th century) is cut in three sections, each section being a triptych, thus building a triptych of triptychs: And most of these tapestries have the same structure.

1- Left triptych
In the middle: The Annunciation
On the left: Eve facing the snake; God announces a Savior
On the right: The dew, miraculously, falls over Gideon’s fleece
2- Middle triptych
In the middle: The Nativity 
On the left: The blazing bush: God discloses his name to Moses 
On the right: Aaron’s blossomed rod
3- Right triptych
In the middle: The Epiphany 
On the left: Three brave warriors bring water from besieged Bethlehem to King David 
On the right: The Queen of Sheba sees Salomon’s wisdom

The miracle will cause the conversion of Nebuchadnezzar to Judaism. But to come back to the status of foreigner of these Jews, the text is clear that the Jews are foreigners in Babylon, but from the Jewish point of view the Babylonians are the foreigners. The moral of the story is that people can finally understand one another when they just listen to the others, respect the others and do not try to impose their ways onto the others. Unluckily the Biblical story has a flaw since this mutual respect is negated in and by the conversion of the king. It is mutual respect maybe, but not reciprocal since it leads to the negation of one side.

But it is true the Librettist goes very far in this ternary symbolism. Consider the following declaration of the King:

Ah! Heat the burning fiery furnace!
Heat the furnace! Heat the furnace!

Three “heat,” there “furnace,” plus the ternary “burning fiery furnace” with three words that mean exactly the same thing or at least refer to the same thing, “fire.” The two triplets, “heat” and “furnace,” could build David’s star or Solomon’s number, wisdom in other words, but this double triplet contains in its very core another triplet that makes the whole structure jump to nine, the most dramatic and ill-fated number of Christianity, the hour when Jesus dies, the ninth hour, the number of the beast and the dragon of the Apocalypse, the Apocalypse itself that comes just after the second coming, represented by eight which is nothing but a standing omega, the end of time.

The last chorus of the opera with each line starting with “O” is a rich numerical symbolic passage (10 “bless,” 13 “O” + 1 opening “O” from the Acolytes, hence 14 or twice seven and seven is essential for Nebuchadnezzar and could refer to the seven climes of the children and descendants of Ishmael, one of the two sons of Abraham, descendants who are called Arabs in the Old Testament, 23 addressees to which each request to “bless the Lord” are directed. But the most striking formula is “Bless ye the Lord, Praise him and Magnify Him for ever.” Double triplet again with the three verbs and the three designations of God. But this phrase is repeated three times in this final chorus, and that will lead to 3 “bless,” 3 “praise,” 3 “magnify,” thus leading to nine requests. When you add the other “bless” of this chorus you reach 16 requests, twice eight, twice the end of time, twice omega, twice the second coming, if that is not the symbol of the Messianic Jerusalem, of the conversion of the pagan king, of the salvation of the world in the unifying vision of Jesus contained in this tale, what is?

You may believe or not, that’s not the point. The point is that the poetry of this libretto is extremely rich in Jewish and Christian symbolism and then we can wonder what Benjamin Britten can do with this poetry by turning it into music, since music is basically tempo and rhythm.



William Plomer is a very skilled librettist. He takes a Biblical parable, in this case from the New Testament, and turns it into a simple show confronting good and evil in one nut’s shell. To do this he has to embody the devil, the Tempter as he calls him in the line of Thomas Becket and his own temptation in his cathedral.

William Plomer insists in making that Tempter a stranger, an unknown visitor from the outside world, though he is in fact the visitor from the inner deeper world of the Younger Son, the world of his desires, impulses and other lusty lures and snares he is going to fall in. Then this stranger of a Tempter takes the Younger Son into the outside world, into the strange world, the world of strangers, the world in which the Younger Son becomes a stranger himself, a stranger to be exploited and bled into beggardom.

This light but meaningful play on strange and stranger, on not being and becoming the stranger of the parable, emphasizes the fact that we live in a very narrow circles of acquaintances, family and friends and that getting out of it is dangerous, because it is temptation and we are not prepared to that temptation since we were raised in a locked up enclosed airtight cocoon. Get out of it and you suffer, you may suffocate.

And suffer or suffocate he does with three temptations: alcohol which means loss of control, the ecstasy of joy, pleasure and beauty, that is to say women, which means loss of control, and finally gambling which means loss of control again, and every single time, at every single step the loss of control goes along with the loss of the Younger Son’s portion. Three temptations instead of four for T.S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket, the trinity of evil instead of the fourfold ordeal of the crucifixion that redeems the world. No redemption in this ternary fall to that triple temptation.

And yet the end is well known and yet the end is maybe slightly pale in the acceptance of the Father’s forgiveness by the Elder Son. This easy change of mood, this resigned obedience, this smooth reversal from anger to compliance is another regeneration in the Biblical field from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from the Old Testament of Cain, the other famous Elder Son who kills Abel, the other famous Younger Son, because Abel is favored by God while Cain is rejected. This reversal into this Prodigal Son and his forgiving father is the basic meaning of the New Testament. God, our Father, is not longer a punishing and vengeful figure but a forgiving and gentle parent. And Benjamin Britten knows everything about being rejected, including by the Father Abbot speaking in the name of God.

The simplicity of the style helps this story to remain limpid though the fact that the Tempter is no one but the disguised Abbot is surprising. Economy of scale maybe with one actor-singer instead of two, or maybe some deeper meaning that the Tempter may use at times the language of God himself to make us fall in the appealing ruse of his. And mind you, it works.


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