The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

7

Billy Budd

Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known.

Herman Melville 1

Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a 'Person', and has shown that there is something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance.

E. M. Forster 2

In his first three operas, Britten had exploited the dramatic ambiguities latent in the source narratives, but for his next opera he went further, selecting a text, Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor, which intentionally cultivated an aura of mystery and inconclusiveness and which had at its core an essential indeterminacy of form and theme which the original author had deliberately emphasised: 'The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact ... hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial . . . Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges' (p. 405). 3 The undefined homoerotic sub-currents latent in Melville's text disrupt his equivocal narrative with 'gaps' or 'mysteries' which might positively invite musical interpretation or embellishment. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that Britten's operatic reading of Melville displays evidence of an attempt to 'de-eroticise' the text and to impose a dramatic and psychological unity on Melville's 'ragged' form, principally by reducing the original text's narrative multiplicity and by establishing a conceptual frame in the form of a retrospective Prologue and Epilogue. However, perhaps less unexpectedly, the musical score frequently injects the very innuendo and uncertainty which the libretto seeks to eradicate.

____________________
1
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 391. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in parentheses in the text.
2
E. M. Forster, 'What I Believe', in Two Cheers for Democracy (London: Arnold, 1938), p. 65.
3
The issue of inconclusiveness is ironically emphasised by the fact that there is no definitive version of Melville's text. During the last years of his life Melville had made substantial revisions which remained incomplete at the time of his death in 1891. The novella was first published in 1924. In 1962 Harrison Hayford and Morton M. Seatts Jnr published Billy Budd, Sailor: Reading Text and Genetic Text, Edited from the Manuscript with Introduction and Notes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) which attempted to correct a number of minor textual discrepancies.

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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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