Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten

By Conlon, James | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten


Conlon, James, The Hudson Review


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Message, Meaning and Code in the Operas of Benjamin Britten
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.