The Operas of Benjamin Britten: Expression and Evasion

By Claire Seymour | Go to book overview

12

The Church Parables

From all ill dreams defend our eyes, From nightly fears and fantasies; Tread under foot our ghostly foe, That no pollution we may know.

'Te lucis ante terminum', from The English Hymnal

The composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream interrupted a project which Britten had been considering with William Plomer for some time, for a new style of operatic work modelled on Japanese Nō drama. The renewed collaboration between Britten and the librettist of Gloriana was to produce a trilogy of works — Curlew River, The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son — and to lead to the creation of a new genre, the 'church parable'.

In November 1955 Britten and Pears embarked upon a five-month concert tour of Austria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka. During this tour Britten was able to pursue his strong interest in oriental music, a fascination which had initially been stimulated by his friendship with the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee, whom he had met in America 7 September 1939. 1 In February 1956, Britten and Pears spent twelve days in Japan, an experience which significantly influenced Britten's subsequent career. 2 Before this visit, Britten had no previous practical experience of Nō theatre or of Gagaku (Japanese court music); it was Plomer himself who had recommended that Britten should make the most of the opportunity to immerse himself in these Japanese dramatic arts. Plomer recalled: 'In 1955 Britten was planning a journey to the Far East. Knowing that I had lived in Japan when young, he asked if there was anything he should particularly see or do while there. I strongly recommended the Japanese theatre in its various forms, Kabuki, Bunraku and Nō— particularly the Nō. I remember describing a Nō play and imitating some of the gestures used by the actors.' 3

____________________
1
Britten's first exposure to Indonesian and Balinese music, and his personal friendship and musical collaboration with McPhee, is extensively discussed by Mervyn Cooke, 'Britten and Colin McPhee', Britten and the Far East, pp. 23—49.
2
See Cooke, ibid., 'Japan', 'From Nō to Church Parable' and 'The Later Church Parables', pp. 112—219, for an exhaustive analysis of the influence of oriental music and theatre in Britten's Church Parables.
3
Edinburgh Festival Programme Book (1968), 28. In fact, remarks by Ronald Duncan, in Working with Britten, pp. 112—13, suggest that Britten was interested in Nō plays as early as

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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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