The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

1

Introduction

I understand Ben so well and his fear that he can't. If he is only wanting a career (and I know that is not it), and a career that I know would be very short, then he need not change. But if he wants to survive, to be played with love later on, even during the later years of his life, he must search for a more personal, more interesting idiom.

Colin McPhee 1

Music says, 'Love me'. It does not say 'Obey me'; it does not even say 'This is true'. Love me or Love with me. That is why the performer is the centre of this act of Love: he is the instrument of it . . . In making/creating music an act of Love is also undertaken. Music is the Beloved. Singer is the Lover.

Peter Pears 2

This book examines the ways in which the operas of Benjamin Britten may illustrate his search for 'a more interesting idiom', a search which was driven by his desire for an appropriate public 'voice' which might embody, communicate, and perhaps resolve, his private concerns and anxieties. The above quotations raise several issues which may enhance our understanding of Britten's music and methodology, such as the delicate balance between private and public communication, the tension between art as self-expression and art as moral resolution, and the notion of the latent sexuality of music, particularly song.

At the heart of my investigation lies the question, 'Can, or should, music serve as a redemptive model for life?' By analysing the libretto texts and musical scores of Britten's operas from Paul Bunyan (1941) to Death in Venice (1973), the three Church Parables, and several of the 'children's operas', I seek to identify the creative links between his music and biographical events or psychological factors, in order to uncover the personal narrative encoded within the operatic narrative, and to demonstrate that, for Britten, opera was the natural medium through which to explore and express his private concerns. I shall evaluate the artistic value of the unfolding autobiographical narrative in Britten's operas, and examine the presence of a homosexual dynamic in both the verbal and musical texts. By studying the practical and creative procedures involved in the process of

____________________
1
Letter to Elizabeth Mayer, postmarked 10 July 1941, quoted in Philip Brett, 'Eros and Orientalism in Britten's Operas', in Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary Thomas, Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 237.
2
From 'The Responsibility of the Singer', found among Pears's papers after his death and quoted in Christopher Headington, Peter Pears (London: Faber & Faber, 1992), pp. 306—7.

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The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Operas of Benjamin Britten - Expression and Evasion *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Permissions *
  • Abbreviations x
  • 1 - Introduction *
  • 2 - Paul Bunyan *
  • 3 - Peter Grimes *
  • 4 - The Rape of Lucretia *
  • 5 - Albert Herring *
  • 6 - The Little Sweep *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 7 - Billy Budd *
  • 8 - Gloriana *
  • 9 - The Turn of the Screw *
  • 10 - Noye's Fludde *
  • 11 - A Midsummer Night's Dream *
  • 12 - The Church Parables *
  • 13 - Owen Wingrave *
  • 14 - Death in Venice *
  • 15 - Conclusion *
  • Bibliography *
  • Index *
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