Sunday, December 04, 2016


The Young are the Psychopomps of the Old to Eternal Living Death

Benjamin BRITTEN & Jacques COULARDEAU & (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.


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

Jacques COULARDEAU & Benjamin BRITTEN at (60)

The Turn of the Screw, from James to Britten

Presentation of discussion
I have to deliver a full article in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten's operas. I have listed 21 works in that field and I still have six to go. The Turn of the Screw is particularly important because of the career the opera has had on operatic stages in the world. It is also crucial because more than with any other work this one has brought a wide - and wild - critical approach of Benjamin Britten's sexual orientation which is not at stake in this opera the way I read it, within the others like The Little Sweep that also deals with children in an upper class family. It is this way I would like to submit to your discussion and I am quite open to all ideas though it is quite clear that I will not discuss in my article the sexual orientation of the composer.


The following comparison of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of this novella to the operatic stage reveals there are two oceans that are crossed: the Atlantic Ocean and the ocean of time. In spite of his life spent between the USA where he was born and where he had brother, sister, father and mother, Henry James is not English at all. This ghost story is typically American and never reaches the Gothic level British stories construct or the ironic if not sarcastic level of Oscar Wilde. It is also the time of the great debunkers of ghost stories known as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who do not believe in ghosts but do believe in criminals and murderers and know from experience that ghosts are a good cover up for a crime, still used in many TV series.

On the other side Benjamin Britten is British to the core and ghosts cannot be ghosts because the ocean of time has been crossed along with two world wars, the two successive births of globalization. We have more or less abandoned the soul in psychiatry and we have vastly replaced it with the mind and the great masters of the mind in 1955 were Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Jacques Lacan already and emerging fast, but not yet Michel Foucault. Each one of these set the mind in one special place of the body. For Freud the mind is in emotions and impulses. For Jung the mind is heritage from the old culture we receive with our milk after birth. For Jacques Lacan it is in the conflict and construct of two essential dimensions: the basic physiological body and the concept of authority, both in their conflict and cooperation constructing a superego he called the Phallus. Michel Foucault sets the mind at the level of the consciousness of one’s sexual apparatus, in many ways like Wilhelm Reich but with a mental dimension that Wilhelm Reich never reached, tied up and locked up in the sexual drives, both penile and anal, or vaginal and anal.

But, and that’s my main point, Benjamin Britten moves away from the ghosts to deal with mental memories or constructs that replace the parents these children do not have any more, but he refuses the innuendo Henry James invested in his novella all the time in the form of extreme sexual obsession in the nameless Governess. He brings the kids back to their ages, eight and ten, and at ten a boy needs a male model and not a male sexual partner. This model is a father substitute when the father is absent or a father extension that brings into the mental father of the boy new elements to build his superego, or Phallus to use Lacan’s concept. 

And Benjamin Britten shows his deep consciousness that with any maternal figure in that situation who would be too possessive and in this particular case a power and control (sexual) freak, the boy might be mentally destroyed to the point of desiring to get out of this world back into the world where his mental model is living, since Quint is dead and not dead at the same time. Simultaneously that boy, in the most innocent way, will punish the maternal substitute who dared push him into non-existence by dying in her arms, in her lap, his big death punishing the mother-torturer-executioner who dared provoke some ripples in the field of his still unawake little death without understanding that you cannot play with that impulse even with a boy of ten without running the risk of destroying him because it is castrating if you frustrate the dim satisfaction of it and traumatic if an adult takes advantage of it to satisfy his or in this case her phantasms.

This is part of a longer study due in December on the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten’s operas, still six to go out of twenty-one.

Research Interests:

Jacques Coulardeau at (55)





On the basis of the very first steps in that project for Avignon’s University, I submit to discussion the following notes. Britten sounds to me like a spiritual transcending chant and song of death beyond life in the heart of life itself. That love, that life, that transcendence is like the figure of the boy killed in Curlew River or some other operas, since I will only deal with operas, including of course Death in Venice, the perfect sacred garden and cemetery of Benjamin Britten, the graveyard of his belief that life can only be in death, or if you prefer that death can only exist in life.
Here are the operas I will consider after collecting them. Some are ballets, some are vaudevilles, some are operettas, but all are about that strange foreigner who is the only stranger in our life that counts: death, death our friend, death our lover, death our life partner. 
Thinking of it now, just at the beginning of this search and hunt, I feel death is the most beautiful experience man can have, and that is not morbid because any “Danse Macabre” is not a simple ordinary dance. It is a trance that leads us to bliss and full mental orgasmic enjoyment.
One of my starting block is La Chaise Dieu’s Danse Macabre and I add to this first lap my review of two books on this Danse Macabre.
Research Interests:
Christianity, Sociology of Children and Childhood, Death Studies, War Studies, Opera, Early Christianity, British Music, Second World War, Death and Burial (Archaeology), New Testament and Christian Origins, Philosophy of Love, Jesus Parables, Q, Historical Jesus, and Biblical Hermeneutics for Ethico-Political Interpretation of New Testament, The relation between Theology and Ethics in Pauline Letters, Masculinity, Fatherhood, Boys, Coventry, and Requiem

This is only the beginning of this research. Benjamin Britten is a phenomenal composer and yet his works are scattered and there is no comprehensive presentation of his music divided among various publishers or producers and with repeats from one to the other and many works published separately. What I am interested in is the figure of the stranger or the foreigner in his operas and other stage productions. That leads to death most of the time, particularly the death of young boys, or young men. This and the Christian inspiration leads me to look into the way death was considered in the past centuries, particularly in the Middle Ages and the 15th century, the century when plague, war and economic collapse could have had unpredictable consequences. I found a lot on this subject in the direct Benedictine heritage in my corner of the world. A strong Christian presence can be seen in his various productions, at times directly imported from the Bible with the theme of being rejected for one reason or another, and also being forgiven or even saved, be it only after death or after some martyrdom. This denial of love in the midst of the assertion of love is poignant and disquieting. The full paper is due for December and I have to explore some 18 works, whose list is provided at the beginning. If you think I have missed one or two please let me know.

Jacques Coulardeau & Paul Bunyan at (62)


Paul Bunyan, from wilderness to consumer's society


In the project going on right now to cover the figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten's operas I have reached the first opera after many more I have studied before. This one is more a manifesto, musical and political, on Auden and Britten's side than a purely evanescent "entertainment neither true nor beautiful nor witty." 

The revival version though has cut off two essential scenes. But what is important here is the fact that Bunyan reaches both the level of the epic hero of a picaresque adventure and that of a myth, a legend, a folkloric character that becomes universal in his all-encompassing historical vision of his conquest of the west, like in a way the Chinese Monkey of the Buddhist Journey to the West. 

Is teh stranger, teh eternal guest as he calls himself, that Bunyan is in our world an ideal, a prophet, a guru, or just a friend to accompany our dreams of a better world?

Research Interests:
Marxism, Sigmund Freud, Freud and Feminist Psychoanalysis, Karl Marx, Hollywood, Soup, Lumber industry, Beans, John Bunyan, Oedipus, Spanish conquest of the Americas, Campfire, Lumbering, Manhattan, Grand Central Station, Lumber History, and A brief summary in spanish about Jocasta


The figure of the stranger in Benjamin Britten's operas is more and more a stranger from outside that completely perturbs the status quo of where he arrives, or a stranger from inside that makes one confront his or her real circumstances or real deeper self. Too often it has been associated with Benjamin Britten's sexual orientation and in this case his collaboration with Auden increases the tendency especially since it is about an all-male environment in which there is ONLY one woman, and also one dog and two cats, all of them sung by women as Auden notes in his introduction to the libretto.. Yet I feel that it would be a mistake to consider the question only, first of all or in any priority way as having to do with Benjamin Britten's sexual orientation, just as much of a mistake as connecting his approach of the American conquest of the West with his dentist of a father whose drill he would try to run away from.

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