Saturday, July 08, 2017
The whole opera catalogue of Benjamin Britten
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
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.
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.
Bunyan 1941-1976 p.
Grimes 1945 p.
3. Rape of
Lucretia 1946 p.
Herring 1947 p.
Nicolas 1948 p.
Little Sweep 1949 p.
II: Abraham and Isaac 1952 p.
10. Turn of
the Screw 1954 p.
of Pagodas 1957 p.
Fludde 1958 p.
Night’s Dream 1960 p.
Requiem 1962 p.
15. Curlew River 1964 p. 104
Fiery Furnace 1966 p.
Golden Vanity 1966 p.
Son 1968 p.
Children’s Crusade 1969 p.
Wingrave 1970 p.
in Venice 1973 p.