BRITTEN – THE RAPE OF UCRETIA – 1946
This is a war
story that defies and defiles love. We must keep in mind we are just after the
Second World War, just out of it, and the steady reference to Jesus Christ, to
the Cross, to his death to save us makes the story of Lucretia a real
annunciation that man’s curse cannot be redeemed. Jesus is compensation and not
possible change. It is salvation that has to be brought back over and over
again since man will always commit sins, a redemption that can only come after
the crime. This somber Christian parabolic lesson is present from beginning to
end and animates the whole tale.
The story is a
simple as simple can be. Two generals, Junius and Collatinus, and one Prince,
Tarquinius, are at war against the Greeks somewhere and they boast, some
evening in camp when drinking and waiting for a battle to come some day, about
women and how the wives of many generals were found unfaithful when checked
upon, except Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife. According to Tarquinius women are the
only end in life for him and for both Junius and Tarquinius all women are by
nature unchaste. Tarquinius though boasts he can prove Lucretia is chaste and
Junius dares him on that objective, both meaning Lucretia will be taken, for
Junius because that’s the nature of all women and for Tarquinius because he is
a hypocrite when asserting Lucretia is chaste: his objective is to take her.
Sure enough Tarquinius takes a horse, gallops to Rome, visits late at night Lucretia’s home
and spends the night there. During the night he takes Lucretia and rides her
just the same utilitarian n way
as a horse, and then he goes back to his horse and gallops back to camp before
daybreak. Strangely enough Junius tells Collatinus he has to check upon Lucretia
because he had heard a horse galloping away on the previous night and galloping
back in very early in the morning. When Collatinus arrives at Lucretia’s home,
it is too late and Lucretia kills herself in front of her husband out of shame.
libretto’s author and Benjamin Britten turn this simple and sad story into a
remarkably meaningful tale about man and his fate, consequently about woman and
story is built on two groups of people. On one hand three men, two generals and
one prince. Note the three men are connected by their military service. On the
other hand three women, Lucretia, her nurse Bianca and her maid Lucia. Note the
three women are connected to light and purity by their names. Lucia is a name
derived from “lux” meaning light. Bianca is a name derived from “bianco”
meaning white, and Lucretia often associated to the Latin word “lucrum” meaning
profit is parallel to Lucia and hence the old Celtic god of light, Lugh, Lug or
Lu’ch seems more pregnant to qualify the lady. Note though this very same
Celtic root, which is also an Indo-European root, the same as in the Latin word
“lux” is also behind Lucifer. Lucretia thus and her two servants create an
environment of light that is also ambiguous in some ways with connection to “lucrum”
(profit), to “Lucifer” (the light-resplendent side of Satan), and also to lust
and an old Germanic root meaning desire. In this triad of women we have some
ambiguous meaning that makes them in a way the victims of a curse: the curse of
being light as well as desire, purity as well as profit.
On the other
hand the triad of men are just military people by profession or by birth and
their superiority as men is their absolute dimension as individuals who just
take what they can take for the sole reason they can take it, and that applies
to women for two of them, though the third one remains silent on the subject
more than non-committed: he is married, his wife is faithful and he is faithful
to his wife.
triads are opposed in directions, one looking to the other, one penetrating the
other and the other receiving the first one. That is the famous star of David
and thus a Jewish symbol that was anachronistic in Lucretia’s time in ancient Rome, but is pregnant in
modern times in 1946.
triads are amplified by twp choruses in the old Greek meaning, each one reduced
to one person who gives some reflection on what is happening. One is male and
the other one is female. Thus we have two groups of four, four men and four
women, and the heavy reference to Christ makes us think of the crucifixion of
course but the number eight the two groups could compose is not significant
here since there is no second coming or resurrection in the fateful and tragic
story we are dealing with. The two choruses are thus the voice of the curse of
men and women, of humanity. This curse is perfectly expressed in the second
“Female Chorus and Male Chorus
Here, in this scene, you see
virtue assailed by sin with strength triumphing.
All this is endless sorrow and pain for Him.
Nothing impure survives,
all passion perishes.
Virtue has only one desire:
to let its blood flow back
wounds of Christ.
She, whom the world denies,
Maria, Mother of God,
help us to lift this sin
which is our nature
and is the Cross
She, whom the world denies,
Mary, most chaste and pure,
help us to find your love,
which is His
flowing to us from Him.”
I have set in bold font the various references to Jesus
and we are speaking of the wounds and the cross, hence the Passion of Christ.
The nature of man is to sin and it is asserted twice and associated to the only
chaste and pure woman in this context, Mary or Maria, the Holy Virgin. But what
is important is to see the movements between sinful man begging for redemption
The first movement is from man to Christ: “this sin . . .
is the cross to Him.” The sin of man is thus imposed onto Christ in the form of
the Cross. Christ is crucified because of, by and even with man’s sins. The
second movement is from Christ to us: “His spirit, flowing to us from Him.” That
makes the situation incredibly cynical. Man sins, it is his nature. That puts
Christ on the cross and when he dies there his spirit comes down to us and
redeems us. You have the two dimensions of the two cups of the star of David,
the cup of truth-receiving man and the cup of light-giving God. But the
movement is doubled up cynically: the cup of the cross-giving sins of man to
the cup of Passion-receiving Christ. Christ becomes here the insurance against
our sins, the guarantee we will not pay for our sins.
Then when fate is that brutal and inescapable, there is
only one solution for the passive sinner who was not willing but who was the
victim of the sin of someone else: do the same thing as Jesus, accept to die
for that sin, for that other person’s sin imposed onto her, since the passive
sinner is Lucretia. And Lucretia has to die. The light has to be dimmed. The
Epilogue of the opera is absolutely irreversible in what I have just said. The
opera does not try to correct anything, to convince anyone. It is just the
resonance-box of human fate:
Now, with worn words and these brief notes
we try to harness song to human tragedy.”
There is another element to point out in this opera: it is
the heavy use of ternary elements in words, meaning and music, with a deep
sense of fate and destiny carried by some quaternary elements like the four
knocks (alluding to a famous set of four notes in Beethoven’s fifth symphony) on
Lucretia’s door on that damned evening, but it is also the regular use of a
pentacle to tell us doom is all powerful. The five syllables of “Good night,
Your Highness” repeated three times and then an instant later a fourth time,
that echo the five syllables of “Good night, Lucretia” repeated twice, and to
make the balance even that makes six instances of these salutations, though not
three and three. It is such intertwined elements and rhythms carried by words
that make some passages so powerful that we could consider that then Benjamin
Britten reaches a moment of perfect and exquisite suffering in beauty and love.
Let me give one example in the final scene when Lucretia confronts Collatinus.
was to be never but as moiety.
was to die, daily with anxiety.
was to live on the edge of tragedy.
Now no sea is
to drown my shame.
Now no earth is
to hide my shame.
Now no sun is
to lift this shadow.
Now no night is
to hide this shadow.
Dear heart, look into
Can you not see the shadow?
In your eyes I
see only the image of eternity
and a tear which has no shadow.
first star of David with three five-syllable (pentacle) “to love as we loved”
echoing the three rich rhyming words “moiety,” “anxiety” and “tragedy.” The
three words have three syllables and then it becomes the nine of the beast, and
beast it is since blood is going to be shed.
two sets of six intertwined with variations: “now no sea – now no earth – now
no sun – now no night – into my eyes – in your eyes,” hence four and two, and
“shame – shame – shadow – shadow – shadow – shadow,” hence two and four.
text carried by the most expressive and strong music is there the acme of that
expression of fate, destiny, doom. We are in pure tragedy but a tragedy that is
cosmic, at the level of the human species itself. Man can only bring desolation
and death, just like he has five fingers on each hand and can cross them or
twist them in a way or another; for love with two people holding hands, for suffering
in a dramatic event, for prayer to God, Mary or Jesus to get some salvation, or
even for death by holding the dagger that will put an end to the shame and the pain.
there is another attraction in this story for Benjamin Britten. It is the woman
and the man who love each other in total unison, in total osmosis, in total
faithfulness who are taken as victims of society, who are pointed out as
inacceptable because different, because beyond sin and crime. They are the
foreigners, the strangers in this society and as such are bullied and victimized
if not openly rejected, therefore causing their death. Collatinus is rejected
because his wife is faithful and Lucretia is rejected because she is a faithful
but only on the side, Benjamin Britten insists a couple of times on the
political situation in Rome where an Etruscan foreigner is the king of the city
that is not Etruscan as such, but is Roman. We thus have a city occupied by
some foreigners or strangers and that alludes to WW2 as well as to Palestine in Jesus’ time.
Lucretia is sacrificed by the Etruscan just like Jesus was sacrificed by the
Romans. This gives the story a tremendous historical value. The Male Chorus has
it right: the victims do not need any material existence because love lives in their
very principle of victimized victims, in their deeper essence of their abstract
definition as Jews killed by the Nazis or as one Jew killed by the Romans, in
the emotion and the experience that survives their death and it is this death
that gives love its eternal value and force.
They have no need
of life to live,
they have no need
of lips to love,
they have no need
of death to die.
In their love, all's dissolved.
In their love, all's resolved.
Oh, what is there but love?
Love is the whole.
a star of David with three “they have no need” and three “of life to live – of lips
to love – of death to die.” Each element of the two triads have four syllables and
thus they build three symbolical apocalypses, second comings, resurrections,
which makes the triad “live – love – die” the only way to eternity. And sure
enough the couplet of two repeated lines of three plus three syllables amplifies
this star of David that then moves to a different rhythm (2 + 2 + 2 = 6) in
“Oh, what / is there / but love?” thus bringing the total to eighteen syllables
(the beast 9 twice, or simply the beast in the Book of Revelation 666). And that
comes then to the whole resolution of the Holy Week, the Passion with four syllables
and then three, hence seven: “Love is the whole. / It is all.”
Jews, and many others, millions altogether were killed and incinerated in many
death camps and yet they will always survive in our memory with love and even
passion, the passion for the victims of the worst ostracization in the 20th
century. This opera is a major work by Benjamin Britten but it is also a major
classic from the 20th century and more precisely from the guilt in
love for and guilt in memory of the victims we could not protect or save in the
period from 1933 to 1945. Yes our love for these victims is all that survives
this dark period of treachery and viciousness, and along with our love the