Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten

Article excerpt

Benjamin Britten is often credited with having reawakened British opera, which had lain dormant for two centuries. He could equally be recognized for awakening the contemporary operatic world to the hitherto untapped dramatic potential within the subject of homosexuality and male relationships. He was no doubt constrained by the law. Homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in the U.K. in 1967, at which point Britten was fifty-four years old and within a decade of his death. He was also constrained by the sense of opprobrium that was still standard fare in polite, if hypocritical, society. He came of age in the 1930s, inescapably aware of the not-so-distant events surrounding the trial, imprisonment and death of Oscar Wilde.

Britten's revolution was a subtle one, and he accomplished much of it by writing in code. The written word lends itself to the use of code. Code assuredly has preliterate roots, but the growth of alphabets and the increasing sophistication of languages nurtured a corresponding development in coded messaging. Literature and poetry are replete with them. The roman à clef and the nom de plume are code in another form. In complex human society, one word can be used to mean another.

Music also has codes and hidden meanings. Modern research has discovered that even Plato utilized musically constructed codes. But music, it is often said, starts where words stop. It is an inarticulate art. Music need not have any meaning at all, and if it does, it is implicit. Music affects us by perception of the senses, which then provoke emotional reactions. Subsequently we may attempt to reduce these feelings and perceptions to words and ideas. We grasp literature intellectually through words and ideas, which stimulate us in many ways, including provoking emotions. Music can be implicit but not explicit, whereas the word can be both.

Code as such is therefore a very small element in classical music. Composers often amuse themselves with notation in various guises or employ a type of "text painting" by using exclusively musical means to illustrate or parallel a text. Music has developed an enormous evocative power, whether describing landscapes, grand emotions, nature, forests, oceans or mountains.

But musical code is different. It is a murky subject, strewn with conjecture, elusive meanings and speculation. Musical code would suggest using notes that imply one thing to imply another. It could only be effective when the composer (even in absentia), the performer and the listener simultaneously share the same wavelength.

There are many examples, increasingly so in the twentieth century. Sir Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations is just what the title implies. The Expressionist composers, Alban Berg in particular, employed code. For example his Lyric Suite is so named because he took a love theme from Alexander Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony and used it to send a message to a secret love.

In the 1930s, as the political situation worsened in Germanspeaking countries, it became more common for composers who fell under Nazi suppression to use code. Viktor Ullmann, who wrote over twenty compositions while interned at the transit concentration camp Terezin, used it extensively to communicate with his Czech-Jewish compatriots, avoiding interference by the Nazi authorities. The String Trio of Gideon Klein (Ullmann's younger colleague in Terezin) is purportedly written entirely in code. Karl Amadeus Hartmann, in his opposition to the Third Reich, withdrew from public life and elected to write in code for himself and his friends.

But the most significant examples of musical code in the twentieth century are to be found in the works of two of its greatest composers: Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich. Both men felt the necessity for adopting code for many of their works, though the circumstances leading to that choice were dissimilar. The story of their friendship and mutual admiration across the barrier of the Cold War is an extraordinary one. …

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