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Britten's Operas Love Rejection Death

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The first task was to gather what can be called opera. Quite a few vocal works are not classified in that genre because they are considered as oratorios as if an oratorio was not an opera (a musical work entirely sung generally in two tones, prosodic and psalmodic). That goes back to the Old Testament which is divided in its accompanying music, written in the margins, in these two tones. It is of course present in any oratorio, starting in the 13th century in Beauvais Cathedral with Ludus Danielis.

The opera is only the transfer of this religious musical genre into the secular field. The opera is nothing but a secular oratorio. And can we see a musical difference between operas and oratorios in Handel and are Bach’s Passions oratorios or operas? Some purist will tell you the opera was invented in Italy, etc. Purity leads to closure. This geographic definition of the opera was introduced in a time when we did not know the musical accompaniment of the Old Testament probably codified by the music school set up by King David. At that time too Ludus Danielis was unknown and Italy was torn apart by two styles, one favored by the Roman Popes and remaining very narrowly religious and traditional, and another secular and bound to flourish in the Italian opera houses that were still to be invented and built in the 16th-17th centuries when that artistic quarrel between the Church and society was starting to rage with Monteverdi.

Anyway it does not apply to Benjamin Britten for the simple reason that he does not differentiate the recitative from the arias. The music is the same in tone and style from beginning to end. Then the difference between operas and oratorios, if there is one, is purely because of the religious dimension of oratorios. That is light and semantic.

You will hereafter find my notes on the 21 works I classify in this field, in chronological order, some small, some big, some famous, some less well-known, but all in a distinctive musical style that is unique and yet that is also very closely articulated on the music of the 20th century. Benjamin Britten knew his classics, even the modern classics of his time, and borrowing or imitating are fundamental: he is able to use the style of anyone and turns it into his own style that is first of all transformative.

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Britten's Operas Love Rejection Death

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  2. 2. BRITTEN’S OPERAS – A COMMAND – AN ORDER DISCOVER AND FOLLOW The first task was to gather what can be called opera. Quite a few vocal works are not classified in that genre because they are considered as oratorios as if an oratorio was not an opera (a musical work entirely sung generally in two tones, prosodic and psalmodic). That goes back to the Old Testament which is divided in its accompanying music, written in the margins, in these two tones. It is of course present in any oratorio, starting in the 13th century in Beauvais Cathedral with Ludus Danielis. The opera is only the transfer of this religious musical genre into the secular field. The opera is nothing but a secular oratorio. And can we see a musical difference between operas and oratorios in Handel and are Bach’s Passions oratorios or operas? Some purist will tell you the opera was invented in Italy, etc. Purity leads to closure. This geographic definition of the opera was introduced in a time when we did not know the musical accompaniment of the Old Testament probably codified by the music school set up by King David. At that time too Ludus Danielis was unknown and Italy was torn apart by two styles, one favored by the Roman Popes and remaining very narrowly religious and traditional, and another secular and bound to flourish in the Italian opera houses that were still to be invented and built in the 16th-17th centuries when that artistic quarrel between the Church and society was starting to rage with Monteverdi. Anyway it does not apply to Benjamin Britten for the simple reason that he does not differentiate the recitative from the arias. The music is the same in tone and style from beginning to end. Then the difference between operas and oratorios, if there is one, is purely because of the religious dimension of oratorios. That is light and semantic. You will find hereafter find my notes on the 21 works I classify in this field, in chronological order, some small, some big, some famous, some less well-known, but all in a distinctive musical style that is unique and yet that is also very closely articulated on the music of the 20th century. Benjamin Britten knew his classics, even the modern classics of his time, and borrowing or imitating are fundamental: he is able to use the style of anyone and turns it into his own style that is first of all transformative. The second point to add here is the fact many of his works are all male and use many boys’ choirs. The modern tendency though is to use treble choirs including girls. This is, when it is done, a treacherous breach of the British tradition of all male choirs and boys’ choirs that developed and prospered in boys’ schools and universities with countertenors cultivated and respected even after these universities were finally opened to women. In fact to use mixed choirs instead of boys’ choirs is a sexist position that negates the originality of the British tradition. Other composers (and Benjamin Britten in some works) vastly composed for mixed choirs or even for girls’ choirs, and that is legitimate. My last remark will be I have tried to capture the original intended meaning of these works that systematically present some outsider, stranger, foreigner, outcast in central position, and the boy who is the main character is often the victim of mistreatment by society or some adults, mostly men. It is a trend to consider this is to be connected with Benjamin Britten’s gayness. I think this is excessive even if this gayness gave Benjamin Britten a direct taste of being excluded, marginalized or kept under suspicion. I will rarely allude to this gayness and I will try to avoid seeing gay innuendo everywhere. 3
  3. 3. TABLE OF CONTENTS 0. Introduction p. 2 1. Paul Bunyan 1941-1976 p. 5 2. Peter Grimes 1945 p. 13 3. Rape of Lucretia 1946 p. 18 4. Albert Herring 1947 p. 23 5. Saint Nicolas 1948 p. 30 6. The Little Sweep 1949 p. 33 7. Billy Budd 1951 p. 39 8. Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac 1952 p. 43 9. Gloriana 1953 p. 45 10. Turn of the Screw 1954 p. 51 11. Prince of Pagodas 1957 p. 74 12. Noye’s Fludde 1958 p. 75 13. Midsummer Night’s Dream 1960 p. 79 14. War Requiem 1962 p. 92 15. Curlew River 1964 p. 104 16. Burning Fiery Furnace 1966 p. 109 17. The Golden Vanity 1966 p. 119 18. Prodigal Son 1968 p. 120 19. The Children’s Crusade 1969 p. 124 20. Owen Wingrave 1970 p. 126 21. Death in Venice 1973 p. 136 4
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  5. 5. 1- Paul Bunyan – 1941-1976 W.H. AUDEN – PAUL BUNYAN – LIBRETTO – 1941 For his first opera, the extremely British composer chose another extremely British poet to be his librettist and a legendary American folkloric tale to evoke the birth and development of the United States from a sheer empty wilderness only containing wild beasts. There is a lot to say about this version of this campfire tale, a favorite of all YMCA summer camps, adapted by these British minds. The first thing is the date of creation, 1941, which makes this tale and the opera coming afterwards an essential means to build the pride of Americans and their conviction they have to enter the war to defend the American Way with their Acts, which are the concluding words from Paul Bunyan: “Where the night becomes the day, Where the dreams becomes the fact, I am the Eternal Guest, I am Way, I am Act.” The American patriotism they try to build is surprising since W.H. Auden states in his introductory remarks, and it is absolutely clear in the opera itself, that America was born from “the stage of colonization of the land and the conquest of nature.” No human beings on that land or in that nature. So from the start of the opera it is clear America is a virginal land only covered with a virginal forest. And the birth comes when a “performer” comes there to perform his act. “What kind of a performer?” the four young trees ask. And the three wild geese answer “A man.” The geese mean one particular man known as Paul Bunyan. But the four young trees play dumb and ask “What is a man?” as if the geese were speaking of a generic and not particular man. And the chorus of the old trees asks the question a second time to make sure we have heard the mistake. The three wild geese then answer a generic answer indeed: “A man is a form of life That dreams in order to act And acts in order to dream And has a name of his own.” The four young trees and the chorus of old trees finally understand the geese are speaking of one particular man and they ask “what is this name?” and the three wild geese can give the name of this particular man they have been speaking of all along: “Paul Bunyan.” It is clear there was no man before the arrival of Paul Bunyan in this territory. No Indians, who are mentioned only once in section 24 out of 27: “Of fights with Indians, of shooting matches, Of monster bears and salmon catches. 6
  6. 6. “Of the whirling whimpus Paul fought and killed, Of the buttermilk Line that he had to build.” The Indians are in parallel position at the beginning of the first line of a couplet in this ballad with the whirling whimpus, a Sasquatch which is a word of Halkomelem origin, a language of various First Nations peoples in British Columbia. It is obvious that Indians are in no way First Nations here and that they rank with mythic dangerous monsters coming from the culture of the lumberjacks in the first centuries of English colonization of Northern America as shown here: “The Whirling Whimpus (Turbinoccissus nebuloides) is a Sasquatch-type creature that was said to be responsible for the many disappearances of lumberjacks in the North American woods, a Sasquatch is an anglicized version of the Halkomelem word sásq'ets, which translates as "wild man." “The whirling whimpus is said to be a blood-thirsty 7 foot tall gorilla-like animal that easily fools any animal or person possible. When it senses prey coming down a pathway, it hides, usually at the bend of the trail. Then as the victim comes nearer, the Whirling Whimpus begins to spin around on one foot or hoof quickly which renders it practically invisible. As it does this, the wind emits a low droning sound that seems to be coming from the trees above. As the prey looks up, trying to locate the sound, the Whimpus attacks and kills the poor creature mercilessly, making it into molasses or maple syrup!” (http://cryptidz.wikia.com/wiki/Whirling_Whimpus & http://cryptidz.wikia.com/wiki/Sasquatch, both accessed August 14, 2016.) In short “it is a forest full of innocent beasts” as it is said in section 3. In the same way there are no Blacks in this opera on America even when it speaks of Alabama in section 9, or Jews when he speaks of New York in the same section 9. In fact the immigrants are identified as from Sweden, from France, from Germany and from Piccadilly Circus, hence London and England. The cooks are good old Americans though we could have expected some Chinese often used as cooks and laundrymen in ventures like ranching, lumbering, mining, building the railroads, etc. But even the good cook is seen as American, Slim, presented as a high plain drifter, a human character made famous in many western films many years later like High Plain Drifter (1973); My Name is Nobody (1973) or Pale Rider (1984). This being said, and it is important, the traditional story follows different lines for its development. First of all it is interspersed with love episodes, first Paul Bunyan and his wife Carrie, then their daughter Tiny and the cook Slim. This romantic dimension is evoked with love songs and other sections dedicated to it. Then the story is also turned into a critical vision of human motivations. They are identified as love deception; 7
  7. 7. entanglement in some murder or robbery, hence escaping justice; escaping poverty; and accepting to work for a lumbering camp just because they are hungry, which is the case of Johnny Inkslinger, and note this name is not innocent since he is the accountant of the camp, writing down in ink all operations and their cost in a big ledger. It will remind you today of Stephen King’s gunslinger: The Gunslinger (1982) is a novel by American author Stephen King and is the first volume in the Dark Tower series, of which King wrote in 1982 that he considers it his magnum opus. We are dealing here with one fundamental myth of the American West: “With law-abiding, hard-working citizens came criminals. The most notorious were gunslingers, hired guns who would rob a bank one month, protect a cattle baron the next and then be hired as a town marshal the month after that. Being a gunslinger didn’t automatically make a man a criminal; some of the best known were both law enforcers and lawbreakers at different times.” (http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2014/7/24/what-really-happened-in-the-wild-west-the- gunslinger-myth#.WDVa79QrKHs=, accessed November 23, 2016) The opera criticizes the vanity of these human beings, or some of them when Hel Helson, the foreman of the camp, decides, with the support of his men, to challenge Paul Bunyan and have a fight with him that was lost before starting since that’s how the legend goes since Paul Bunyan is a giant, which Hel Helson is not, and the text becomes ironical when it says “Helson is tough but Paul has the brains!” Tough is weak when compared with the strength of a giant who does not need much brain to win. After that defeat the men of the camp pretend they had warned Hel Helson. In other words they are hypocrites, or plain ordinary people who follow the wind. Yet the text is constructive since Paul Bunyan concludes the episode with “In the climax of a fight lost affection comes to light.” Yet this wishy-washy attitude of simple people had been used before when the lumberjacks incite Inkslinger to speak to Sam Sharkey and Ben Benny, the initial two cooks, the first one of soups and the second one of beans, in order to request a change of diet and regimen and to get more variety in the culinary agenda. The two cooks resign at once and the lumberjacks then turn against Inkslinger and accuse him of having caused the resignation against their advice, which is at least a lie. This brings up the idea that any group has to be led by one person who has more willpower, more stamina, more charisma and more vision than the others. It might only be strength like with Hel Helson, but it is something that makes them superior to the others. The final litany in the final section 27 is clear when the three animals, the dog and the two cats, sing three stanzas, each one concluded by the chorus. “From the Pressure Group that says I am the Constitution, From those who say Patriotism and means Persecution, From a Tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion: CHORUS: Save animals and men.” “From entertainment neither true nor beautiful nor witty, From a homespun humor manufactured in the city, From a dirty-mindedness of a Watch Committee: CHORUS: Save animals and men.” “From children brought up to believe in self-expression, From the theology of plumbers or the medical profession, From depending on alcohol for self-respect and self-possession: CHORUS: Save animals and men.” 8
  8. 8. The program is vast from the three perversions of the Constitution, Patriotism and Tolerance into negative elements; via the three emerging derailings of entertainment, humor and mindedness by a bureaucratic and misguided Watch Committee; to finally the three illusions of self-expression taught to children, the practical and medical theology of a god of small things, and self-respect or self-possession reduced to dependence on some habit-forming substances. And the answer is the same: a prayer to save the victims of these nine – what a marvelous Christian symbol (the Beast, the apocalypse, the hour of Jesus’ death) – evil elements, both animals and men, meaning all living creatures and we have to think of the extermination of Buffalos and other species just to make a profit with their pelts and hides, or just for fun, the fun of killing a wild beast, just the way Indians had been brought close to a full genocide, not to speak of slavery. And that’s when Paul Bunyan says “I am Way, I am Act.” There is a lot to do to save this nation and in 1941 the world. In the revival of the opera in the 1970s two scenes were cut off and one is very pregnant on this subject of social criticism. It is the colorful section where Shadows, meaning dreams, are describing themselves in the poor existence they have to go through to satisfy the impulses of human beings at night when they are dreaming. Note they are four and such groups of four characters are vastly used in the opera. It could be seen as Christian (the crucifixion) but it is probably better to think it is only a pattern that gives some dynamic structure to the story, four being more balanced and stable than three which is revolving, running and whirling around. The four shadows start this long song together: “You’ve no idea how dull it is Just being perfect nullities, The idols of a democratic nation; The heroes of the multitude; Their dreams of female pulchritude: We’re very very tired of admiration.” Then follows a long list sung by one or two shadows each enumerating the qualities of this pulchritude meaning beauty of women as shown in these dreams, but that are in fact nothing but the expression of the image of women in films and already on television in 1941, for the few as for TV and in the 1970s for the many if not all as for TV again. It is amazing though that this list includes some obvious elements that are masculine like “the cut of my moustache,” “all athletics” and “the Hercules of underwear.” This makes us waver from sex to gender and play on gender orientation if we apply elements that are not per se feminine or masculine to both men and women like “the whims of fashion,” “in our embraces we select whatever technique seems correct” or “for personal hygiene I’ve a flair.” 9
  9. 9. We will skip the second stanza to jump to the third and the fourth. The fifth stanza is the repeat of the first. “The growth of social consciousness Has failed to make our problems less, Indeed they grow intenser; And what with Freud and what with Marx With bureaucrats and matriarchs The chances are our little larks Will not get past the censor. “You’d hate it if you were employed To be a sin in celluloid Or else a saint in plaster; O little hearts who make a fuss, What pleasure it would give to us To give the bird to Oedipus, The raspberry to Jocasta.” The direct criticism of Freud and Marx, of bureaucrats and matriarchs (who do they mean in 1941, though in the 1970s it was clearly targeting women’s lib activists), then the rejection of the cinema and its celluloid sins, or of religion and its plaster saints is treating these two activities the same, as maybe cathartic illusions though the deeper and deepest desire of the author is to give the middle finger to the Oedipus complex of Freudian men and the noisy fat kiss to the Jocasta complex of the Freudian women. Why they took off this section is surprising because in the 1970s it would have been a lot more meaningful than in 1941 since Freud was Austrian and had escaped Hitler miraculously, and Marx was German for sure but was the star of the Communist Russians, or Soviets if your prefer. In the 1970s it was common to consider Oedipus and Jocasta complexes as very schematic not to say primitive and anyway purely European and from the West as opposed to the Rest. As for Marx after 1968 which was the culminating peak of Marxism in the world, the decline started, in Prague first as soon as 1968 and then all over the world and still going on today. Marxism has become obsolete in political terms though it is still quite pregnant as an economic and social methodology, provided nothing is reduced to antagonistic couples, and here I reject both antagonism which is at least rare if not inexistent in reality, and couples that are the plague of binary methods or visions that have to reduce any complex situation to two elements and no more. The libretto ends with a Christmas party – and not a Thanksgiving party – that enables the author to give the future of the various characters. One has become a rancher. The cook Slim and his wife Tiny have just been hired as the managers of a Manhattan hotel close to Grand Central Station. Inkslinger was recruited first as a project manager in Washington DC in hydraulic electricity and then as an expert for a full cinema covering of this lumbering epic by the cinema studios in Hollywood. Lumbering has come to an end as an adventure and is now a simple industry and the various lumberjacks have found some future in society, some positions in the economy. The USA have become a developed society in which wild adventures are no longer possible. To conclude on this libretto, I must say the opera has to be studied musically now. But I must also say that the style of the language used by W.H. Auden is very strong and powerful, strong even at times heady in the music it contains and powerful even at times mesmerizing in the dynamic it suggests. It is 10
  10. 10. Auden at his best, even if today poets seem to look for a language that contains a disrupted syntax to work more on the paradigmatic semantics of words than on their syntagmatic architecture. BENJAMIN BRITTEN – W.H. AUDEN – PAUL BUNYAN – 1941-1976 It is not an opera, but at best an operetta and probably closer to a Broadway musical as they were already in fashion at the time of creation, in 1941, not to speak of the cinema. I will not reproduce what I have already written and published on the libretto itself. I am going to consider here only the operetta in its 1976 revival version with the two scenes that were cut off for the revival and the Overture that had been cut off for the creation added to the recording of the revival version. The overture was only performed in 1978, two years after Benjamin Britten’s death. The first remark concerns a choice which is striking. The singing is never operatic, except at times the vocalizations of Fido the dog and Moppet and Poppet the cats. It is the standard stage singing of Broadway musicals: the words have to be articulated to be understood by the wide public clearly and distinctly. And that’s a good thing. I should suggest to use that kind of rendering for Schubert’s Lieder that require clear comprehensible pronunciation. We are often far from it since it is “classical.” That’s an advantage of the American stage that does not respect these “classical” norms and standards and here Benjamin Britten kept up to the challenge. He will actually more or less do it in all his operas. The music and singing of the Prologue is magic, fairylike, surreal which is normal since trees are singing. Strangely enough the composer evokes nature by using a supernatural if not unnatural mode as if this nature was a fantastic animated mosaic or fresco. We discover at once too that the various small choruses of old trees or young trees or all other small choruses later on, or nearly, associate various voices, male and female voices, of different pitches. This gives a very good image of the American society then, from the very start of America and still today, a society based on diversity, not diversity in a homogenizing grasp but diversity in bringing together different people who remain different and live together because they are different and thus can be creative. The only case that is slightly different is the Swedish band of lumberjacks at the beginning with their particular chorus, and yet this will lead to a confrontation between the Swedish leader of this band of lumberjacks, surrounded by his cronies we understand are the Swedes, with Paul Bunyan himself who will teach him a harsh lesson in the fight this Hel Helson is looking for. With a name like his he definitely falls in hell. Homogeneity, uniformity is here condemned and Hel Helson has to learn to live in diversity, which he does gallantly after his defeat. And the supporting cronies of before the fight turn over their jackets and become accusers, hypocritical accusers, toward Hel Helson, their own leader. The use of ballads instead of recitatives is a very good idea to give to the telling of the story in- between the scenes an American dimension because most of the ballad tunes in these interludes or even in the many scenes where they are used are typical western ballads, frontier ballads, be they of cowboys, of miners, of railroad workers, of any industry that developed such ballads in which people tell their living conditions, their working conditions and their dreams and frustrations. He apparently more or less constantly avoids the old English ballads coming from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. This is of course dictated by the audience of the creation which is American in 1941, as part of helping Roosevelt mobilize public opinion on the war before or at the same time as mobilizing the males in the population into the armed forces. It is surprising though no mention whatsoever is made of Blacks and only one side mention of Indians is put in the text. The vision of America is that of a virginal forest full of beasts but none of them wear any kind of clothing hiding treacherous hearts. Note here the allusion to Indians is by evacuating them out of the picture and at the same time making them nothing but sly and lying beasts, not human beings. The only human beings are the Europeans identified in the text, no Africans, no Chinese or Asians, no Indians or 11
  11. 11. Native Americans. I will yet make a remark about the “Quartet of Defeated” which is a blues. This form of music is typically black and yet it is not at all attached to any black element, especially since the allusion to the south with Alabama is sung by an alto soloist and I do regret this alto is a woman. This alto should have been a man, what is called a masculine treble in English choral practice today. Male altos were not that impossible to be found in 1941 and this revival version being from after 1976, male altos were already common in England and even in the world since we were just before the next phase of their reappearance under the name of countertenors. Note in England all-male choirs were common with male altos among the singers. The fact that this southern voice is a woman’s becomes meaningless since the South, and here the Deep South, was not characteristic of any women’s movement or evolution, except with the promiscuity imposed to Black women under slavery. The second act is after the vast period of the conquest of the west and it starts dramatically with a long monologue of Paul Bunyan. We must first note that all along Paul Bunyan has always spoken and quite a few small tableaus were spoken and not sung, hence the name of operetta I used. Paul Bunyan in this second act introduces the period when lumberjacks and other adventure lovers or good or bad pioneers could thrive is finished. The new frontier is reached and this new frontier is not some wild virginal forest but some social organized and even exploitative society. People, and first of all Hel Helson, have to learn how to integrate in this society. People have to learn new trades and first of all agriculture and ranching, then electricity and the installation of turbines and high-tension lines. We are in the industrial phase and pretty soon we will reach the third industrial revolution, if not the fourth, the revolution of communication and social networks, and later of robotization. This revolution is still to come, even in 1976, and yet it is present in the opera in different ways. First people have to learn how to communicate. Then some clear allusions to celluloid beings, that is to say the cinema, are present all along. Then there are some parodies of the consumer’s society, of advertising, of mass consumption, of fashion and some other elements that are basic in the cinema of the old days, both the thirties and then the after WW2 period. The standard image of the American family around a married couple, a son and a daughter, in a suburban house with a garage and a car, a fridge and a washing machine, soon a dishwasher and of course a vacuum cleaner and a few other robots in the kitchen, not to mention the dog and the cat that are part of this universe, was born before the Second World War in Hollywood and had been vastly advertised and promulgated in the public with the cinema, the radio, television that was still experimental and soon to be popular, with popular magazines like Time or Life and a few others, with pictures and text to illustrate and demonstrate this new world, this new way of life and this new way of acting. 12
  12. 12. Where is the dream, where is the act, where is the way, where is the trap? No one knows in this mosaic of a diverse world. The only part where it was clearly explained in 1941 and probably not understood, was cut off in 1976, the appendix known as Appendix A. In it the Shadows representing both dreams in sleep and dreams on the screen air a direct criticism at the world of these days, and here a couple of these Shadows accuse Freud and Marx of enslaving Americans with bureaucrats, matriarchs and censors, and locking American thinking and behaving in the false and fake couple of complexes, Oedipus and Jocasta. In 1976 this attack would have been very pertinent. What’s more this vision is spread over two stanzas and in the 1988 recording I have the first stanza with the names of Freud and Marx is purely cut off. That is censorship, the proof of what the stanza said: “The chances are our little larks will not get past the censor.” So much so that it was censored, maybe with the agreement of the composer and the author, of Britten and Auden (I doubt it with the latter since he died in 1973, before the revival, and the former died in 1976 just after the revival and he could not supervise any recording after that date). The end which is a Christmas party is very sad since it declares the frontier finally closed because entirely conquered. It then dispatches the various actors of the epic to the four corners of this world including Manhattan and Hollywood. Paul Bunyan declares himself the Eternal Guest, which means the eternal foreigner because America is a continent of immigration for one, but also because the ideal of this wild conquest of wild countries by wild ideas and ideals comes from within the continent that is within our hearts and souls. It is universal because it is always different from one person to the next and the fake requiem after the fight of Hel Helson and Paul Bunyan is clear when Hel helson’s cronies 3 and 4 sing: “We must obey our superiors and live according to our station in life; for whatever the circumstances, the Chief, the Company and the Customer are always right.” This CCC is the perfect representative of a society dominated by Freud and Marx, a society of Control, Conformity and Compliance. Check it on Wikipedia for more (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CCC). You could of course think of CCCP, the famous Russian version of the song of the Beatles, “Back in the USSR,” definitely the triumph of Marxism that hides the Freudian re-emergence of the survival instinct and the survival of the fitter, Marxism being nothing but a Freudian slip in the international world of politics, socialism becoming the Oedipus complex of the West and the primal crime of the Rest. And the burden that comes in that fake requiem or funeral is “Scram. Or else.” A menace, a promise, an ultimatum that sounds too much like a Republican politician in 2016 in this “democratic society” as Auden and Britten call it. So we can conclude with Paul Bunyan that life is “when the night becomes the day” and when the dreams of the night become the facts of the day inspiring our Way and our Acts. But that is a dream that takes a lot of courage and struggling to become little by little more real and effective though it will never be complete and the battle for it will never be finished. The music is at the level of this practical epic, at times marvelously creative but always level with the popular audience it targets in 1941. Let’s regret this audience did not include two essential actors of this epic, the Indians and the Blacks who both would have been great inspiration though here and there the Blues tradition transpires and the Indian drums and rhythms resonate. But these two are like shadows in the night, a crack in the darkness of the night through which some evanescent dreams or nightmares can surge and take root in our consciousness or unconsciousness. 13
  13. 13. 2- Peter Grimes – 1945 A great opera with marvelous crowd effects By Dr Jacques COULARDEAU on November 7, 2010 An opera like this one is surprising in many ways but this is a special BBC production of 1969 and I would like to insist first on the tremendous qualities of this production. The first element is the setting. It is a complete village square surrounded by wooden houses all raised over the ground with outside staircases to go up to the main doors. These raised houses insist on the danger the sea represents when a tidal wave or a storm comes up to the coast. All made of wood. That's a brilliant idea and yet it is entirely unrealistic. It wants to be out of time and set in a past that could make the story plausible. That village looks like a pioneering settlement in New England in the 18th century, a puritan settlement in a way where everyone is meddling with the business of others because they are locked away from the world, and their only entertainment is to gossip and accuse the one they don't like of all abominable crimes. The second is the house of Peter Grimes, or hut if you prefer. It looks like an upturned ship hull, a dream for many seamen who want to live on the earth as if they were on their boats. It is not without recalling some other uses of that concept, and in a way it reminds me of Moby Dick and of the whale which swallowed Jonas. Here the boat is swallowing the seaman even on the earth. The third positive point is the use of crowds. The chorus is not in anyway set aside or gathered in one place. The chorus singers are moving as if they were a real crowd and that gives a good illusion of the mass movements of a crowd when they are more or less chasing Peter Grimes. The fourth point is the very clear distinction between the officials of the village and that crowd. They move alone and not along with a mass of people and they are dressed in a slightly different way. The lawyer and mayor for example with his red coat, or Ellen, the widowed school-teacher, with a knitted sweater and a big brooch. There is thus a clear distinction between the important people and the common people, on top of the fact that the former are the soloists. The story is of course what is essential in that opera that is telling us a story. It is a very bleak story. Peter Grimes, a solitary sailor, needs an apprentice and he takes orphans from the workhouse in the next but rather distant city. The profession of fisherman is a very difficult profession with many hazards and we could say it is not a profession for children of let's say 10. What's more Peter Grimes seems to be rather rough and careless. In other words his apprentices seem to die by accident in a rather repetitive way. Helped by Ellen at first, he is abandoned by her when she discovers that the new apprentice is being brutalized. One day when trying to run away from the hostile crowd climbing up to his hut, the new apprentice slips and falls off the cliff to his death. Peter Grimes hides away for a couple of days but he has to come back and there a retired captain gives him the only piece of advice that would pacify the village: take your boat, go out at sea and sink the boat and yourself. And he does it. The story is depicting a brutal world that is not so much so physically, but I would say socially. The people are meddling with their neighbors' business all the time, creating tension and stress and pushing 14
  14. 14. people to the brink of sanity and causing over-reactions more than anything else. This is perfectly rendered in this production. But there is of course the music and that is also a great element in the opera. The music never ceases and is always dramatic in its movements up and down in the most logical and yet surprising ways. We cannot really know what is coming and the notes are thus separated one from the others as if the strings of notes were in fact successions of unlinked notes. This creates in the solos a strange feeling of distance, of something lurking in-between the notes, something menacing us constantly. That tone and atmosphere finds its acme with the choruses. The various chorus-singers sing together but most of the time along lines and patterns that are crisscrossing one another to give that impression of a hostile crowd no one can stop or dominate. There is one exception to that disorder. It is the early duet of Ellen Orford and Peter Grimes when they plan some kind of common future with the new child to come. The sentences are perfectly superimposed one onto the other with only the pronouns changing. The contrast between this messy and meddling crowd as long as Peter Grimes is alive and the sudden total ignorance and forgetfulness once he is gone, meaning dead, is of course striking thanks to that use of the music to build a dangerous and menacing environment. BENJAMIN BRITTEN – MONTAGU SLATER – PETER PEARS – PETER GRIMES – 1945 An opera like this one is surprising in many ways but this is a special BBC production of 1969 and I would like to insist first on the tremendous qualities of this production. The first element is the setting. It is a complete village square surrounded by wooden houses all raised over the ground with outside staircases to go up to the main doors, what’s more on the flank of some steep rising shore. These raised houses insist on the danger the sea represents when a tidal wave or a storm comes up to the coast. All made of wood. That's a brilliant idea and yet it is entirely unrealistic. It wants to be out of time and set in a past that could make the story plausible, a past we can evaluate to be the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century. That village looks like a pioneering settlement in New England in the 17th century, a puritan settlement in a way where everyone is meddling with the business of all others because they are locked away from the world, and their only entertainment is to gossip and accuse the one they don't like of all abominable crimes, and that’s Peter Grimes. 15
  15. 15. The second element is the house of Peter Grimes, or “hut” if you prefer. It looks like an upturned ship hull, a dream for many seamen who want to live on the earth as if they were on their boats. It is not without recalling some other uses of that concept, and in a way it reminds me of Moby Dick and of the whale which swallowed Jonas. Here the boat is swallowing the seaman even on earth. But it is Peter Grimes’ house which means he lives in an upside down sea world, in a shipwrecked boat ready to sink. This image is a very sad and grim vision. The third positive point is the use of crowds. The chorus is not in anyway set aside or gathered in one place, even a changing place on the stage. The chorus singers are dressed like normal sea fishermen and sailors and their wives the same, and they are moving as if they were a real crowd and that gives a good illusion of the mass movements of an at times hostile crowd when they are more or less chasing Peter Grimes, rather more than less. The fourth point is the very clear distinction between the officials of the village and that crowd. They move alone and not along with a mass of people and they are dressed in a slightly different way. The lawyer and mayor for example with his red coat, or Ellen, the widowed school-teacher, with a knitted sweater and a big brooch. There is thus a clear distinction between the important people and the common people, on top of the fact that the former are the soloists. The story is of course what is essential in that opera that is telling us a story. It is a very bleak story. Peter Grimes, a solitary sailor, needs an apprentice and he takes orphans from the workhouse in the next but rather distant city. The profession of fisherman is a very difficult profession with many hazards and we could say it is not a profession for children of let's say 10, or even 12, or 14 as for that. What's more Peter Grimes seems to be rather rough and careless. In other words his apprentices seem to die by accident in a rather repetitive way. Helped by Ellen at first, he is abandoned by her when she discovers that the new apprentice is being brutalized. One day when trying to run away from the hostile crowd climbing up to his hut, the new apprentice slips and falls off the cliff to his death. Peter Grimes hides away for a couple of days but he has to come back and there a retired merchant captain gives him the only piece of advice that would pacify the village: take your boat, go out at sea and sink the boat and yourself. And he does it. The story is depicting a brutal world that is not so much so physically, but I would say socially. The people are meddling with their neighbors' business all the time, creating tension and stress and pushing people to the brink of sanity and causing over-reactions more than anything else. This is perfectly rendered in this production. But there is an aspect of this story that has to be emphasized because it is a repetitive pattern in many operas. A poor boy abandoned by society and surviving in a workhouse (which refers to at the latest 16
  16. 16. the 19th century) is “bought” by Peter Grimes to be his apprentice on his ship. Apparently his apprentices systematically die. The opera starts with the “trial” of the latest victim, but the Lawyer and Mayor who presides over the court shortens the debate and declares the death occurred in “accidental circumstances” to the high disagreement of the population of the shipping village because there will be no real trial. We discover that an old spinster is playing the role of the moralistic and ethical accuser in the village in the name of God of course. Her campaign is effective because Peter Grimes lives alone in a “hut” higher up on the cliff. His “hut” is an upside down ship hull. He is in a relation with the widow who serves as the local schoolteacher, Ellen Orford. She intervenes to soften the villagers’ feelings when the carter is asked to bring the next boy to Peter Grimes from the workhouse since he is going to the town, and he refuses to do it not to be the accomplice of a murder. She actually goes with him to make sure. The boy is delivered in the evening: he looks frightened and completely lost, which is normal after all since he is now an uprooted child from an institution where he was already uprooted, meaning with no parents, and exploited, meaning severely. We all think of Dickens and Oliver Twist. But there will be no escape, no redemption, no salvation for that boy. That’s an important trait in Benjamin Britten’s operas: such uprooted boys will not find any good Samaritan who would take them under their protection. This twist is amplified by the hostility of the village against Peter Grimes. He is perceived as a loner, and a busy one at that, who is trying to do better than he should, fish more than he should, even go out on Sunday when everyone is resting since it is the day of the Lord. They perceive him as looking down upon them. And when they start their move towards lynching Peter Grimes they sing at the end “Him who despises us we will destroy.” In other words he is the “stranger” they reject because he does not live like them: he does not come to the pub to drink and take advantage of the nieces of the Auntie who is taking care of the pub-cum-inn where the sailors can rest-cum-entertain. And to make more money, to be able to step up in his life to some better future, he “buys” boys instead of working with another sailor who would be a partner or an employee. This man rejected by everyone is also a pattern in Benjamin Britten’s operas and it is easy to relate this pattern to the personal life experience of the composer. We are of course not implying Benjamin Britten is projecting his personal life into his operas, hence his emotional and sentimental frustration in this society that rejects him, and Peter Pears at the same time, but we say Benjamin Britten has a direct and personal experience of this social rejection anyone can be the victim of for any reason at hand in the homogenized single collective mind of a crowd. Every single member of this crowd might be pretty nice in private but the crowd creates the lynching and pogromming monster in every single one of us when the opportunity is right in front of our door, but here it is not ethnic cleansing but social cleansing. 17
  17. 17. This double estrangement in this opera is fascinating. The boy is estranged from society by successive uprootings that lead him to death in a way or another, the first boy at the beginning dies of thirst, and the second boy at the end dies of a big fall, like Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall. The man is estranged from the village and from society by his ambition that makes him appear as superior, ambition that will not be fulfilled, satisfied, realized. And the context itself is an estrangement for everyone or nearly: a sailor in his ship is alone and his home, as Peter Grimes says at the end before his own end, is “deep in the sea” and it is deep in the sea that he will end along with his ship, on the advice of the retired merchant skipper, Captain Balstrode. In other words the end is the reenactment of the walking of the plank of old shipping traditions: death penalty at sea. All this makes this opera poignant and mind-raking. Is humanity that ugly? But there is of course the music and that is of course a great if not the greatest element in the opera. The music never ceases, except one a cappella duet, and is always dramatic in its movements up and down in the most logical and yet surprising ways, half a tone here and there turns minor the most logical major sentence, suspends it in thin air, in fear and awe. We cannot really know what is coming and the notes are thus separated one from the others as if the strings of notes were in fact successions of unlinked notes creating an effect of total outlandish isolation at times. This builds in the solos a strange feeling of distance, of something lurking in-between the notes, something menacing us constantly. That tone and atmosphere finds its acme with the choruses. The various chorus-singers sing together but most of the times along lines and patterns that are crisscrossing one another to give that impression of a hostile crowd no one can stop or dominate. There is one exception to that disorder. It is the early duet of Ellen Orford and Peter Grimes when they plan some kind of common future with the new child to come. It is sung for its major part a cappella and the sentences are perfectly superimposed one onto the other with only the pronouns changing: a dual unison more than a duet, and yet a duet because we feel this unity is highly endangered. The contrast between this messy and meddling crowd as long as Peter Grimes is alive and the sudden total ignorance and forgetfulness once he is gone, meaning dead, is of course striking thanks to that use of the music to build a dangerous and menacing environment. 18
  18. 18. 3- Rape of Lucretia – 1946 BENJAMIN BRITTEN – THE RAPE OF UCRETIA – 1946 This is a war story that defies and defiles love. We must keep in mind we are just after the Second World War, just out of it, and the steady reference to Jesus Christ, to the Cross, to his death to save us makes the story of Lucretia a real annunciation that man’s curse cannot be redeemed. Jesus is compensation and not possible change. It is salvation that has to be brought back over and over again since man will always commit sins, a redemption that can only come after the crime. This somber Christian parabolic lesson is present from beginning to end and animates the whole tale. The story is a simple as simple can be. Two generals, Junius and Collatinus, and one Prince, Tarquinius, are at war against the Greeks somewhere and they boast, some evening in camp when drinking and waiting for a battle to come some day, about women and how the wives of many generals were found unfaithful when checked upon, except Lucretia, Collatinus’ wife. According to Tarquinius women are the only end in life for him and for both Junius and Tarquinius all women are by nature unchaste. Tarquinius though boasts he can prove Lucretia is chaste and Junius dares him on that objective, both meaning Lucretia will be taken, for Junius because that’s the nature of all women and for Tarquinius because he is a hypocrite when asserting Lucretia is chaste: his objective is to take her. Sure enough Tarquinius takes a horse, gallops to Rome, visits late at night Lucretia’s home and spends the night there. During the night he takes Lucretia and rides her just the same utilitariann way as a horse, and then he goes back to his horse and gallops back to camp before daybreak. Strangely enough Junius tells Collatinus he has to check upon Lucretia because he had heard a horse galloping away on the previous night and galloping back in very early in the morning. When Collatinus arrives at Lucretia’s home, it is too late and Lucretia kills herself in front of her husband out of shame. But the libretto’s author and Benjamin Britten turn this simple and sad story into a remarkably meaningful tale about man and his fate, consequently about woman and her fate. First the story is built on two groups of people. On one hand three men, two generals and one prince. Note the three men are connected by their military service. On the other hand three women: Lucretia, her nurse Bianca and her maid Lucia. Note the three women are connected to light and purity by their names. Lucia is a name derived from “lux” meaning light. Bianca is a name derived from “bianco” meaning white, and Lucretia often associated to the Latin word “lucrum” meaning profit is parallel to Lucia and hence the old Celtic god of light, Lugh, Lug or Lu’ch seems more pregnant to qualify the lady. Note though this very same Celtic root, which is also an Indo-European root, the same as in the Latin word “lux” is also behind Lucifer. Lucretia thus and her two servants create an environment of light that is also ambiguous in some ways with connections to “lucrum” (profit), to “Lucifer” (the light-resplendent side of Satan), and also to lust and an old Germanic root meaning desire. In this triad of women we have some ambiguous meaning that makes them in a way the victims of a curse: the curse of being light as well as desire, purity as well as profit, and light anyway and all the time, hence to be taken by men. On the other hand the triad of men are just military people by profession or by birth and their superiority as men is their absolute dimension as individuals who just take what they can take for the sole reason they can take it, and that applies to women for two of them, though the third one remains silent on the subject more than non-committed: he is married, his wife is faithful and he is faithful to his wife. These two triads are opposed in directions, one looking to the other, one penetrating the other and the other receiving the first one. That is the famous star of David and thus a Jewish symbol that was anachronistic in Lucretia’s time in ancient Rome, but is pregnant in modern times in 1946. 19
  19. 19. These two triads are amplified by two choruses in the old Greek meaning, each one reduced to one person who gives some reflection on what is happening. One is male and the other one is female. Thus we have two groups of four, four men and four women, and the heavy reference to Christ makes us think of the crucifixion of course but the number eight the two groups could compose is not significant here since there is no second coming or resurrection in the fateful and tragic story we are dealing with. The two choruses are thus the voice of the curse of men and women, of humanity. This curse is perfectly expressed in the second interlude: “Female Chorus and Male Chorus Here, in this scene, you see virtue assailed by sin with strength triumphing. All this is endless sorrow and pain for Him. Nothing impure survives, all passion perishes. Virtue has only one desire: to let its blood flow back into the wounds of Christ. She, whom the world denies, Maria, Mother of God, help us to lift this sin which is our nature and is the Cross to Him. She, whom the world denies, Mary, most chaste and pure, help us to find your love, which is His spirit, flowing to us from Him.” I have set in bold font the various references to Jesus and we are speaking of the wounds and the cross, hence the Passion of Christ. The nature of man is to sin and it is asserted twice and associated to the only chaste and pure woman in this context, Mary or Maria, the Holy Virgin. But what is important is to see the movements between sinful man begging for redemption and Christ. The first movement is from man to Christ: “this sin . . . is the cross to Him.” The sin of man is thus imposed onto Christ in the form of the Cross. Christ is crucified because of, by and even with man’s sins. The second movement is from Christ to us: “His spirit, flowing to us from Him.” That makes the situation incredibly cynical. Man sins, it is his nature. That puts Christ on the cross and when he dies there his spirit comes down to us and redeems us. You have the two dimensions of the two cups of the star of David, the cup of truth-receiving man and the cup of light-giving God. But the movement is doubled up cynically: the cup of the cross-giving sins of man to the cup of Passion-receiving Christ. Christ becomes here the insurance against our sins, the guarantee we will not pay for our sins. Then when fate is that brutal and inescapable, there is only one solution for the passive sinner who 20
  20. 20. was not willing but who was the victim of the sin of someone else: do the same thing as Jesus, accept to die for that sin, for that other person’s sin imposed onto her, since the passive sinner is Lucretia. And Lucretia has to die. The light has to be dimmed. The Epilogue of the opera is absolutely irreversible in what I have just said. The opera does not try to correct anything, to convince anyone. It is just the resonance-box of human fate: “Male and Female Chorus Now, with worn words and these brief notes We try to harness song to human tragedy.” There is another element to point out in this opera: it is the heavy use of ternary elements in words, meaning and music, with a deep sense of fate and destiny carried by some quaternary elements like the four knocks (alluding to a famous set of four notes in Beethoven’s fifth symphony) on Lucretia’s door on that damned evening, but it is also the regular use of a pentacle to tell us doom is all powerful. The five syllables of “Good night, Your Highness” repeated three times and then an instant later a fourth time, that echo the five syllables of “Good night, Lucretia” repeated twice, and to make the balance even that makes six instances of these salutations, though not three and three. It is such intertwined elements and rhythms carried by words that make some passages so powerful that we could consider that then Benjamin Britten reaches a moment of perfect and exquisite suffering in beauty and love. Let me give one example in the final scene when Lucretia confronts Collatinus. Lucretia: To love, as we loved, was to be never but as moiety. To love, as we loved, was to die, daily with anxiety. Lucretia, Collatinus: To love, as we loved, was to live on the edge of tragedy. Lucretia: Now no sea is deep enough to drown my shame. 21
  21. 21. Now no earth is heavy enough to hide my shame. Now no sun is strong enough to lift this shadow. Now no night is dark enough to hide this shadow. Dear heart, look into my eyes. Can you not see the shadow? Collatinus: In your eyes I see only the image of eternity and a tear which has no shadow. A first star of David with three five-syllable (pentacle) “to love as we loved” echoing the three rich rhyming words “moiety,” “anxiety” and “tragedy.” The three words have three syllables and then it becomes the nine of the beast, and beast it is since blood is going to be shed. Then two sets of six intertwined with variations: “now no sea” – now no earth” – “now no sun” – “now no night” – “into my eyes” – “in your eyes,” hence four and two, and “shame” – “shame” – “shadow” – “shadow” – “shadow” – “shadow,” hence two and four. Such text carried by the most expressive and strong music is there the acme of that expression of fate, destiny, doom. We are in pure tragedy but a tragedy that is cosmic, at the level of the human species itself. Man can only bring desolation and death, just like he has five fingers on each hand and can cross them or twist them in a way or another; for love with two people holding hands, for suffering in a dramatic event, for prayer to God, Mary or Jesus to get some salvation, or even for death by holding the dagger that will put an end to the shame and the pain. But there is another attraction in this story for Benjamin Britten. It is the woman and the man who love each other in total unison, in total osmosis, in total faithfulness who are taken as victims of society, who are pointed out as inacceptable because different, because beyond sin and crime. They are the foreigners, the strangers in this society and as such are bullied and victimized if not openly rejected, therefore causing their death. Collatinus is rejected because his wife is faithful and Lucretia is rejected because she is a faithful wife. 22
  22. 22. Yet, but only on the side, Benjamin Britten insists a couple of times on the political situation in Rome where an Etruscan foreigner is the king of the city that is not Etruscan as such, but is Roman. We thus have a city occupied by some foreigners or strangers and that alludes to WW2 as well as to Palestine in Jesus’ time. Lucretia is sacrificed by the Etruscan just like Jesus was sacrificed by the Romans. This gives the story a tremendous historical value. The Male Chorus has it right: the victims do not need any material existence because love lives in their very principle of victimized victims, in their deeper essence of their abstract definition as Jews killed by the Nazis or as one Jew killed by the Romans, in the emotion and the experience that survives their death and it is this death that gives love its eternal value and force. Male Chorus: They have no need of life to live, they have no need of lips to love, they have no need of death to die. In their love, all's dissolved. In their love, all's resolved. Oh, what is there but love? Love is the whole. It is all! First a star of David with three “they have no need” and three “of life to live – of lips to love – of death to die.” Each element of the two triads have four syllables and thus they build three symbolical apocalypses, second comings, resurrections, which makes the triad “live – love – die” the only way to eternity. And sure enough the couplet of two repeated lines of three plus three syllables amplifies this star of David that then moves to a different rhythm (2 + 2 + 2 = 6) in “Oh, what / is there / but love?” thus bringing the total to eighteen syllables (the beast 9 twice, or simply the beast in the Book of Revelation 666). And that comes then to the whole resolution of the Holy Week, the Passion with four syllables and then three, hence seven: “Love is the whole. / It is all.” The Jews, and many others, millions altogether were killed and incinerated in many death camps and yet they will always survive in our memory with love and even passion, the passion for the victims of the worst ostracization in the 20th century. This opera is a major work by Benjamin Britten but it is also a major classic from the 20th century and more precisely from the guilt in love for and guilt in memory of the victims we could not protect or save in the period from 1933 to 1945. Yes our love for these victims is all that survives this dark period of treachery and viciousness, and along with our love the victims themselves. 23
  23. 23. 4- Albert Herring – 1947 BENJAMIN BRITTEN – ERIC CROZIER – ALBERT HERRING – LIBRETTO – 1947 Just out of World War Two, let us sing the greatness of Great Britain and the still in existence Empire. The greatness and also the naïve innocence of the old Celtic traditions of the Maypole, May Day and of course May Queen. But today it is difficult to find a pure, innocent, virginal female teenager who could qualify for such a rite, such a choice, such a symbolic designation. So the poor villagers and their local noble lady are obliged to change their target and aim for a May King. And sure enough there is one who qualifies, though we do not know why and how that actually happened, a male young adult could be virginal at the sexually ripe age of twenty or so. This Albert Herring, with no father any more and only a possessive control freak mother is the next greengrocer of the village when his mother decides to retire. More than a simpleton, since he knows how to count and he’d better do so since everyone is trying to cheat him out of what they owe him, he is nicely autistic more than anything else: he has difficulties establishing a relation with any third person apart from himself and his mother. He is shy they say. He is hard working and one-pointed but he does not have any vision of the future: He lacks ambition – maybe – they say. And he does not know at all what is beyond the narrow pale of his mother: he has never had any alcohol since his mother is a teetotaler. He has never gone out to a pub or anywhere else since he works for his mother from sunrise to beyond sunset. He has never approached or been approached by a girl or woman since he is the untouchable of his mother. And the opera turns to his disadvantage and to our merry pleasure since he is a fool in the first act, a fair idiot in the second act and then he disappears to come back a transformed person who has discovered there are many other things in life beyond his mother and her narrow-minded vision of her living death and her cane if not cudgel imposed authority. Good riddance and welcome home, finally home, your home, the way you make it and not the way your widowed mother wants to impose it. The text is light and light-hearted, and yet it makes fun of British fundamentalism based on “no alcohol, we are teetotalers” and “no ‘fleshy contact,’ we are British” and “no free thinking or atheistic illusions, 24
  24. 24. we are Anglicans.” How could that fundamentalism survive in Great Britain so long? No surprise with pub opening hours reduced to nearly nothing up to the 1980s when they were finally slightly extended and liberalized though they will be really free only in the 21sy century. What is amazing is that two of the basic themes of Benjamin Britten’s operas are already all contained in this early one. Albert Herring is a stranger in his own village, kept apart, on the side and the target of jokes, tricks, and other pranks, like making him drink rum laced in his lemonade, or stealing his apples, or getting herbs for free by just forgetting to pay before leaving. He is also a stranger to his mother because she does not know he is a man and she treats him as if he were a pet, a working pet mind you, hence a domestic animal like an ox, and he is as strong as one if not two. The second theme is of course the denunciation of ethical, religious, moral fundamentalism and particularly the fundamentalism of some women who think they are the mothers of society like Lady Billows, not one billow but several large undulating masses of something, typically cloud, smoke, or steam, or maybe a vast inflated balloon billowing in the hot air of her moralistic discourse, fanned like a moralistic fire by the local Mayor, the local Vicar and the local Superintendent, or is it only a simple Constable? Three men aided by a fourth female character, the local teacher, Miss Wordsworth who is worth what words are worth, not much indeed since they only exist in dictionaries. And of course a real mother, the sixth possessive control freak that she is, is seen as stifling, choking and smothering her own son into asocial suffocation with only one intention: to make him a money-earner for the family, that is to say for herself. These two themes are extremely present in many operas with one absent here: the killing or abducting father figure, the third side of the trinity Benjamin Britten used so much all the time along with pentacles and pentads like the five selectors of the new May King: Lady Billows, Mr. Gedge the Vicar, Superintendent Budd, Mr. Upfold the Mayor and Miss Wordsworth the Head Teacher, clearly opposed to the three people around Albert, Sid, Nancy and Mrs. Herring, and the three kids from the village, Emmie, Cis and Harry. And if you add Florence Pike, the Housekeeper of the Lady, you reach thirteen fateful blind deaf and not dumb at all, meaning mute, though quite dumb meaning besotted characters. And their names are just a bunch of funny puns. 25
  25. 25. BENJAMIN BRITTEN – ERIC CROZIER – ALBERT HERRING – COMIC OPERA or OPERA BUFFA– 1947 This opera is inspired – adapted they say – from a short story by Guy de Maupassant, “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” and do not make the simple mistake to believe this Madame Husson is a Madame. She is an old spinster or maybe old widow, rich enough to believe she can change the world by buying the soul of a young virginal man to make him her virtuous mascot for the whole village or city. She is enslaved to the local Catholic priest, not physically of course not, not emotionally of course not, not sensually either of course not. But she is kneeling in front of Jesus and God, she is in full mesmerism when the priest speaks, and yet Maupassant cannot escape his anti-catholic blockage and he turns that virtue, that cultish adoration of virtue for all into ridicule and the satire, the caustic debunking of this fundamentalist Catholic hatred of life and pleasure is as hot as hell and burning bright in what he considers the night of religious faith if not dependence, the opium of the people, as you know. We are in 1887, the famous Third Republic, the Republic of the Jules (and there are many of them: Jules Favre, Jules Grévy, Jules Simon and Jules Ferry, the Three Musketeers who were four of course), a republic that was anti-religious first of all, and becoming more and more urban minded if not Paris-centered, considering the provinces as some underdeveloped Purgatory if not Hell, because these anti-religious politicians kept the concepts of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, just as if they were natural continents on the planet Earth. Luckily Benjamin Britten and Eric Crozier got rid of this impossible extreme war against anything divine just as well as Maupassant’s hatred of anything English seen as the main enemy, the only enemy, the empire of Satan and all his devils and witches along with Lucifer, Mephistopheles and many others. Listen to that jingoist brave and warmongering anti-British absurdity of a character for sure but reflecting the atmosphere of Maupassant’s time and the phenomenal fight between the British and the French colonial empires. Maupassant was a real jingo indeed (http://wordhistories.com/2013/06/15/jingoism-chauvinism/). "The spirit of provincialism, my friend, is nothing but natural patriotism," he said. "I love my house, my town and my province because I discover in them the customs of my own village; but if I love my country, if I become angry when a neighbor sets foot in it, it is because I feel that my home is in danger, because the frontier that I do not know is the high road to my province. For instance, I am a Norman, a true Norman; well, in spite of my hatred of the German and my desire for revenge, I do not detest them, I do not hate them by instinct as I hate the English, the real, hereditary natural enemy of the Normans; for the English traversed this soil inhabited by my ancestors, plundered and ravaged it twenty times, and my aversion to this perfidious people was transmitted to me at birth by my father. See, here is the statue of the general." . . . “I also learned that Clothaire II had given the patrimony of Gisors to his cousin, Saint Romain, bishop of Rouen; that Gisors ceased to be the capital of the whole of Vexin after the treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte; that the town is the chief strategic centre of all that portion of France, and that in consequence of this advantage she was taken and retaken over and over again. At the command of William the Red, the eminent engineer, Robert de Bellesme, constructed there a powerful fortress that was attacked later by Louis le Gros, then by the Norman barons, was defended by Robert de Candos, was finally ceded to Louis le Gros by Geoffry Plantagenet, was retaken by the English in consequence of the treachery of the Knights-Templars, was contested by Philippe-Augustus and Richard the Lionhearted, was set on fire by Edward III of England, who could not take the castle, was again taken by the English in 1419, restored later to Charles VII by Richard de Marbury, was taken by the Duke of Calabria occupied by the League, inhabited by Henry IV, etc., etc. 26
  26. 26. And Marambot, eager and almost eloquent, continued: "What beggars, those English! And what sots, my boy; they are all 'Rosiers,' those hypocrites!" (http://www.online-literature.com/maupassant/242/) So, as you can see the French, and Guy de Maupassant first of all, voted for Brexit a long time before the English did. Britten and Crozier expurgated that mud out of the story and transplanted the plot to England in a city named Loxford, some mythical city that could be London and Oxford, London the real capital and Oxford the intellectual capital, both of England. Then they moved the campaign from the hands of some old virginal spinster to a local Lady, hence a representative of the local aristocracy that is helped in her newborn campaign against pleasure and enjoyment, particularly physical and hormonal, by the local Vicar Mr. Gedge, but also by the local Superintendent Mr. Budd, the local Mayor Mr. Upford and the local Head Mistress from the school Miss Wordsworth. Then the satire is against the five basic institutions of England, and it could be any country after all, namely the aristocracy, the church of England (and the Christian religion), the police, politicians (in this case the city council) and the school system. That is a lot more pertinent and impertinent too than what Guy de Maupassant imagined. Add to these five the shop-keeping mother and you have the sixth institution of small commerce. Then our composer and author invent all kinds of names that are funny in many ways but they make the story both believable and in many ways plausible. Of course Albert Herring is nothing but a red herring. A “red herring” is something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences towards a false conclusion. But the story does not lead that poor young man to perdition in alcoholism and death in delirium tremens like in Maupassant’s short story, but just to only one night of escape and come back in the morning. In other words it is a very simple prodigal son though he leaves with 30 pounds and comes back with 27, which is very reasonable for a prodigal son. Maupassant’s Isidore lost all his money and even his heirloom silver watch after a week or so of complete drunkenness he will never manage to override and leave behind. The next change, and that is a deep change in the line of Britten’s themes, is the relation between the young man Albert and his mother. His mother is actually present in the opera and she is an obvious control freak, and that is a theme Britten will work on regularly and maybe all his life? Mothers are most of the time absent or power freaks with maybe the exception of Curfew River in which the son was abducted by 27
  27. 27. a male stranger or foreigner and the mother is running after them to finally cross the Curfew River to find her son’s tomb on the other side next to a church or chapel. And we could wonder why she did not prevent that abduction. But she is obviously tortured by the event and she is so possessed by the search and chase that we can see she was a control freak of sorts and she was fooled by a male character who stole her fatherless son. But Britten and Crozier bring the mother to reason at the end of this opera buffa and the transmuted, transformed and transfigured son Albert is finally able to tell her to stop bothering him with a short, curt and brief “That’ll do, Mum.” So we do not have the tale of perdition that Maupassant imagined. We have a tale of salvation from imposed innocence, imposed blindness, imposed dullness and the discovery that plain simple pleasures are something you have to experience once in your life and then bring them under control and know that you can drink a little bit, you can have and make love from time to time and you can have other simple pleasures like a peach and the best way to appreciate the taste of a peach is to pass the basket around and give a peach to all the kids just to share the pleasure, though our Albert seems promised to have some competition with Sid concerning Nancy who seems to be wavering between Sid and the redeemed Albert who is maybe after all not a red herring at all but might be promised to a brighter future. Let’s hope he will not turn into a carnivorous if not cannibalistic pike. Of course then we have to wonder what makes this Opera Buffa a real masterwork. And that’s the music of course. The music never stops and intermissions are in fact musical interludes. The music is extremely dynamic with singers mixing their voices and their lines into choruses at times, duets and other small groups of coordinated singing, but also and quite often a group of characters, all of them most of the time, sing together one on top of the others, or one line between the lines of someone else, etc. We have a real sensation of having a crowd in front of us, a rowdy and excited crowd. Many of the songs and tunes are simple and rather joyous, dynamic and even popular in many ways. We could easily get up to them and sing along. This is typical of Comic Opera or Opera Buffa, just as much as of pantomimes and I must say quite in the long tradition of the English stage, starting with Shakespeare, what do I say, even before with medieval mysteries for example, and developed by Elizabethan masques. This mixture of simple music and dancing in between the scenes of a play will still be alive and strong under Henry Purcell, thus surviving the Commonwealth, and even under George F. Handel. That gives to this opera a joyful and extremely pleasant sound and look. In the third act Britten manages to create a real funeral wake for the supposedly dead and lost Albert and this wake becomes little by little more and more sinister with songs that are more dirges, a threnody, 28
  28. 28. even a requiem to poor Albert that suddenly pops up hardly soiled and hurt by his night of evil adventure, though apart from the drink and the fights we do not get much detail. The prodigal son is after all discreet, modest, bashful, still shy and we could even say demure if Albert were a woman. Dies Irae Dies Illa, indeed. What’s more any stage production is easy with such an opera buffa that does not require any hard and complex interpretation and the creation of a stage universe to make the meaning explicit. GUY DE MAUPASSANT – LE ROSIER DE MADAME HUSSON – 1887 – SORRY AND NATURALLY IN FRENCH – EN FRANÇAIS DANS LE TEXTE Une historiette que l’on peut appeler nouvelle de Guy de Maupassant dans son plus pur style si grotesquement caustique et satirique qu’il en devient hilarant et ce qui devait être une critique acide de la bourgeoisie parvenue de Normandie – comme Madame Bovary de Gustave Flaubert – ainsi que de la pruderie vierge et totalement stérile et impuissante d’une vieille rombière tout aussi vieille fille mais riche qui vit cul et chemise avec Jésus Christ et le Bon Dieu, et l’âme entièrement conquise par le célibataire curé du village, pardon de la paroisse. Celui-ci n’est pas près de tomber dans les rets de Madame Husson car Madame Husson n’a pas de rets. Elle n’a tout au plus que des rots, des haut-le-cœur, des nausées devant les cochonneries, pour ne pas dire cochonnailleries ou autres activités porcines ou dignes d’un goret, que les jeunes font aux quatre coins de la rue Dauphine comme il se doit, car c’est rue Dauphine que tout arrive dans ce monde. Je ne raconterai pas l’histoire, connue comme le loup rouge, le loup qui boit du gros rouge qui tâche bien sûr, mais je dois dire que Maupassant fait un peu fort en son temps contre les Allemands qu’ils ne haït point et les Anglais qu’il honnit fort et bien Ecoutez un peu ces deux morceaux de bravoure jingoïste ou pourrions-nous dire chauviniste : plus Affront Nationaliste que moi tu meurs, mon pauvre Guy. « Ainsi moi, je suis Normand, un vrai Normand ; eh bien, malgré ma rancune contre l’Allemand et mon désir de vengeance, je ne le déteste pas, je ne le hais pas d’instinct comme je hais l’Anglais, l’ennemi véritable, l’ennemi héréditaire, l’ennemi naturel du Normand, parce que l’Anglais a passé sur ce sol habité par mes aïeux, l’a pillé et ravagé 29
  29. 29. vingt fois, et que l’aversion de ce peuple perfide m’a été transmise avec la vie, par mon père... […] « Puis j’appris que Clotaire II avait donné le patrimoine de Gisors à son cousin saint Romain, évêque de Rouen, que Gisors cessa d’être la capitale de tout le Vexin après le traité de Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, que la ville est le premier point stratégique de toute cette partie de la France et qu’elle fut, par suite de cet avantage, prise et reprise un nombre infini de fois. Sur l’ordre de Guillaume le Roux, le célèbre ingénieur Robert de Bellesme y construisit une puissante forteresse attaquée plus tard par Louis le Gros, puis par les barons normands, défendue par Robert de Candos, cédée enfin à Louis le Gros par Geoffroy Plantagenet, reprise par les Anglais à la suite d’une trahison des Templiers, disputée entre Philippe-Auguste et Richard Coeur de Lion, brûlée par Edouard III d’Angleterre qui ne put prendre le château, enlevée de nouveau par les Anglais en 1419, rendue plus tard à Charles VII par Richard de Marbury, prise par le duc de Calabre, occupée par la Ligue, habitée par Henri IV, etc., etc.. etc. “Et Marambot, convaincu, presque éloquent, répétait : « Quels gueux, ces Anglais ! ! ! Et quels pochards, mon cher ; tous Rosiers, ces hypocrites- là. » Le Brexit est une invention française et bien plus ancienne que l’on pourrait croire. C’est d’autant plus amusant que c’est un duc de Normandie qui conquit l’Angleterre en 1066 à Hastings faisant ainsi des rois anglais rien de moins que des ducs de Normandie légitimes. De cette histoire il ne reste que l’immense mépris de Maupassant pour les villes de province qui n’a d’égal que Jules Romains et Les Copains avec Issoire-Passoire et Ambert-Camembert. Ici on fait dans Gisors-Isidore, ne réveillez pas l’ivrogne qui dort en Isidore. Et ces copains-là, ceux de Gisors, eau bénite, curé et vieille fille stérile, n’ont rien à voir avec ceux du radeau de la méduse de Brassens, pas plus que cette ville de province n’a rien de bien loin d’avec celle de Jacques Brel de passage a Vesoul par le caprice d’une femme comme une autre. Je vous souhaite donc le plaisir de lire ce Guy de Maupassant et de ne pas vous étrangler ni vous étouffer sur l’horreur qui est la sienne contre tout ce qui est la France profonde, l’humanité première et naturellement primitive dans nos sociétés pas encore complètement mais déjà un peu de consommation. Guy de Maupassant a vieilli, comme Zola d’ailleurs. Mais George Sand devrait vous charmer car elle a gardé une dimension féérique, voire enfantine, tout comme Colette et ses Dialogues de Bêtes. 30
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  31. 31. 5- Saint Nicolas – 1948 BENJAMIN BRITTEN – SAINT NICOLAS, A CANTATA – 1948 How can the simple man hiding under or behind the saint or the bishop, behind the robe, the mitre and the cross of gold be evoked, celebrated? The front of the bishop hides the secret heart of the man. But at the same time celebrating the life of a saint is always a perilous game because the humility of the saint should lead him to refuse being celebrated, and yet we all have some vanity in our hearts. The birth of Nicolas has something mysterious and the second track is typical about this miracle that the birth of the saint is and the evocation of the miracle is punctuated by seven repetitions of “God be Glorified!” the first six sung by a child and the last, the seventh instance sung by a male tenor, like the real birth of the adult saint in the new-born. The Holy week of the creation or the Holy week of the Passion is thus realized in this final male voice crowning the whole week. This evocation of Nicolas’s birth is quite similar to that of Jesus though in a maybe less poor environment since Nicolas has a crib whereas Jesus only had a manger. The third track shows Nicolas getting cut off and away from the worldly artifacts of life to dedicate himself to God. He is an early orphan and leaves his parents’ house early. He then sells his land to feed the poor but he wants to go beyond plain charity and reach love, meaning love for God and that leads him to cut himself off from the world: “I cast away all things that could distract my mind from full devotion to His will.” Yet this submission is not enough to satisfy God and he makes God his “only Master, friend and guide.” The music is absolute humility, softness, a soft string tune behind the voice that grows stronger, more imposing, forbidding even. And here he works on a ternary structure that is fundamental in the whole cantata. He uses a “burden” of sorts to conclude the last three (out of four) stanzas. “But Love demanded more.” “But Love desired more still.” “And Love was satisfied.” The last one is so suspended in intensity and pitch that he seems to be choking in that Love, to be out of anything real. The fourth track that evokes the journey to Palestine shows a Nicolas who is rejected, jeered, mocked by the sailors because of his devotion. He stands apart from the rest of the crew and as such he is like a stranger and the music suggests this distance with some lines ending in mid air with a non-tonal note. But the prayers are only the preparation for the storm that is evoked by a choir of women or children and Nicolas then waits for the sailors to kneel in front of the storm begging in a way for some intercession and sure enough Nicolas gives it to them and he asks God to forgive the sailors and pacify the storm. A quasi a cappella prayer with just some softly rumbling drums far away. The saint brings peace with his prayer, a peace evoked by his spelling the words out like with his “Pity our simplicity.” But then after the sailors’ “Amen” he finds some power to sing the pacified tempest and the sleeping sailors. Working like that on the tone, rhythm and tempo of Nicolas builds up a realistic man who is at the same time outlandish, different, fearless and yet of service, useful to simple men. The next track brings up the pompous crowning of Nicolas as the Bishop of Myra. There Nicolas asserts he has only one master and he is the servant of that sole master, God and his Church. This dedication is then amplified by the Choir of women’s or children’s voices that sound like a choir of angels, distant and high pitched. Then the choir of mixed male and female voices amplifies this angelic impression by bringing us back to earth and the whole movement is multiplied then by the hymn which the congregation is supposed to take part in or respond to. This amplification of the discourse is surprising because where is the simple man behind this pomp and glorious power? The man really disappears behind the façade of the 32
  32. 32. bishop. That’s when in the sixth track Nicolas is sent to prison by the Romans. Nicolas preaches then from his prison to humanity and his persecution is clearly evoked as the wilderness of man, a wilderness seen as a preference and then a cultivation on the side of man, but this wilderness is “desecrated” by the crucifixion of Christ. The word is surprising since this wilderness is sinful and anything but sacred, and yet it is sacred to these sinners, and Christ crucified, desecrated in his existence by the Passion, becomes the desecration of this so-to-say sacred sinful life. Strangely enough that sets Christ apart from all humans, as if he were a stranger, a foreigner, an extra-terrestrial even who comes on earth to put the whole human wilderness upside down. The seventh track about the Pickled Boys is more dramatic. Travelers tell us about the difficulties of the road, of the long distances they have to travel. A choir of mothers then evokes three boys, Timothy, Mark and John, a trinity immediately amplified by a ternary conclusion “Are gone! Are gone! Are gone!” This evocation of the mother’s’ loss of their children is the mirror image of the difficulties of travelers, though the loss of children is at home, in the family and in the heart, it is the deprivation of the motherly love of these mothers who lose the object of their love by losing their children. And this pain and suffering of mothers is set in parallel with Mary and her loss of her child Jesus. In this track we really have simple people and their suffering, and these simple people are connected to Jesus through his mother Mary. And that’s when Nicolas intervenes. His discourse is voluntarily pushing aside food that he assimilates to sin, so that people can try to save the three souls of the three children. But Nicolas clearly wants to bring the three boys out of oblivion, back to our consciousness. “Timothy, Mark and John, Put your fleshy garments on! Come from dark oblivion! Come! Come! Come! Come!” And the three boys resurrect from their own death. They had been slaughtered by butchers and their flesh had been salted, in a way like pork. This is an evocation of cannibalism. The most surprising element is the names. We could think of three apostles, but only two of them are gospel writers. It is difficult to know what motivated the author of the libretto to choose these three names, but the resurrection and the butcher’s knife that killed them before do not go towards the three apostles. The whole track ends with a long and very complicated conclusion repeating “Alleluia!” a great number of times, over and over again, to celebrate the miracle, ending up with a few measures of joyful dance music. 33
  33. 33. The eighth track is the evocation of the legend and as such is just easy going music and text and it is funny to see how he saves a man from court, three daughters from sin, how he feeds a whole crowd from a single sack, how he saves three men from execution, how he is part of the Nicaea Council that established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, how he chastises Constantine the Great into confessing his sins. But once again this is not the simple man behind the bishop or the saint. We do not really see or feel his doubts, his fears, his anxieties. He is asserted so powerfully as a perfect saint that we seem to forget he also was a man. In fact the allusion to the prodigal son of the New Testament (Luke 15:11- 32) is dematerialized into some abstract elements: “He was prodigal of love! A spendthrift in devotion to us all – and blessed as he caressed.” The last remark is surprising. When he blessed people it was as if he caressed them with gentleness, but that is also treating people as if they were pets because you do not caress even children, certainly not adults. And that leads us to the ninth track and the evocation of the Death of Nicolas. I must admit the discourse of Nicolas at this moment is bizarre in many ways. He greets Death as his liberator since he can finally move on to the Lord and he rejoices in that coming meeting and he thanks Christ who saved his soul by dying on the cross. It is extremely self-centered and where is once again the man who was supposed to serve simple people? Not one word for them. The whole Cantata then ends with a hymn that does not open any new door in the field. Yet the last image is once again a surprise: “The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head.” This idea that the clouds dreaded in life, the clouds of various adverse events, are in fact merciful and can rain onto you in blessings. The oxymoronic nature of these clouds has nevertheless to be set in parallel with the storm during the journey to Palestine. This is slightly outlandish in the modern period, and a few years after the Second World War. How can we consider all difficulties in life are nothing but storms of mercy and blessings from God? A difficulty can only be considered as a blessing if the person concerned has chosen to go through this difficulty. In 1948 we could say in WW2 more than fifty-five million people had gone through the final difficulty of death and most of them had not chosen that fate. It is difficult to see it as a blessing. No death is a blessing. One must be ready to die any time but not because it is a blessing rather because we have done all we had to do on earth properly and we can go without the regret of not having done what was supposed to be done. If our life has not been fulfilled there is no blessing in death, and if life has not been fulfilling then death can only be seen as a blessing if it is an escape from life. Eternal life is neither a reward nor a compensation: it has to be a selfless belief, a faith. In this early work Benjamin Britten seems to be rather in line with some religious orthodoxy more than discovering something new and creative. There are some good elements in the music though but we are still far from the promise he had in him and he was to fulfill soon. 34
  34. 34. 6- The Little Sweep – 1949 BENJAMIN BRITTEN – THE LITTLE SWEEP - 1949 This opera for children cannot be approached in any way if we do not have in mind the two poems by William Blake, the “Chimney Sweeper,” one in the Songs of Innocence (1789) and the other in the Songs of Experience (1794). The two poems have contradictory meanings on the basis of the same description of a hateful and bleak occupation for boys under ten. The first poem’s conclusion is: “Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm; So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.” Good boy indeed who knows his duty. The second poem’s conclusion is "And because I am happy and dance and sing, They think they have done me no injury, And are gone to praise God and his priest and king, Who make up a heaven of our misery." 7 This chimney sweeper shows some kind of childish happiness that hides well the real bleak misery inside. If we keep in mind this contradictory message from the most empathetic English poet ever, we can then get into the opera whose libretto was written by Eric Crozier. In that opera Benjamin Britten plays on the strong image of Blake’s first poem of these boys being locked up in black coffin of soot and their being freed by an angel. “That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, Were all of them locked up in coffins of black. And by came an angel who had a bright key, And he opened the coffins and set them all free; Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, And wash in a river, and shine in the sun. Then naked and white, all their bags left behind, They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind.” Benjamin Britten, or Eric Crozier, uses the image of the coffins many times: stuck in the chimney, then hidden in the toy cupboard, spending the night there, and finally being moved out of the house and onto his liberation in a travelling chest. Every time the boy is liberated in a way or another, the last time is a promise though, by the children of the house who plot that whole procedure, hence playing the role of the angel and led into that by three girls along with three boys, a perfect David’s star, from two families, the Brooks (two girls and one boy) and the Cromes (two boys and one girl), one triangle point up representing the light of divine truth poured down into the human cup and one triangle point down representing the human cup receiving the divine light. 35
  35. 35. Now we can look at the story, the way it is told. Note at once we are inside the home of an upper class family who can afford to have a nursery-maid and a housekeeper. This situation is very traditional in children’s literature in England. Let me cite Peter Pan (1902) and Mary Poppins (1964) for two famous examples, one before this opera and the other after. But there are many more. In other words the formula used here is the formula of many Yuletide pantomimes using traditional elements that all children have in common, to build a new story, a new plot, or just an evocation of the traditional story. But of course this opera is not a pantomime, nor a simple musical, and we have to look at the music slightly more closely. The introduction is a dynamic – and kind of joyous – opening that seems to treat the fate of the sweep-boy, Sam, as something light after all. We are told the boy has been sold by his own father to the sweep master Black Bob who is said to be cruel. There is here a contradiction between the bleak words about an even bleaker reality – that does not exist any more and hasn’t for a long time – and the light joyful music. Actually this is a characteristic of this opera: the music is never tragic or even dramatic. That’s really a pantomime that brings joy and dynamic entertainment to children. And Humpty Dumpty can have as many great falls he wants he will always be put together again, at least by the audience since all the king’s horses and men cannot do it. The second track shows us the heartless housekeeper as opposed to the sentimental nursery-maid who is full of empathy and pity for the sweep boy who is crying out of fear since it is his first chimney. The next track provides first a clear picture of the sweep master and of his assistant. They are both ruthless and just effective: the boy is prepared and sent up the chimney. Then we have the six kids playing hide and seek. It is within that game that they hear the sweep boy calling for help because he is stuck in the chimney. Then they help him by pulling down on the rope attached to the boy and down he comes with soot and stones. This last action is punctuated by a pulling song that sounds like some old sailor song with its burden “Pull O! Heave O!” When Sam is calling for help the situation plays on the basic fear of all children that has to do with claustrophobia, the fear of being locked up and stuck in some small space, and of course the fear of the dark. But once again the music is always light, even when it puts forward the ruffian sweep master and his assistant. The next track is only some in-between moment when the children take charge of Sam after they have pulled him down from the chimney. This unimportant scene, both dramatically and musically is there to introduce the next track which is extremely important. The children plan Sam’s escape, or what they want everyone to believe is Sam’s escape through the window whereas they hide him in the toy cupboard. Sure 36
  36. 36. enough the housekeeper is only interested in getting the chimneys swept and there are six more, whereas the sweep master and his assistant are only interested in catching the boy and teaching him his duty, and here we think of course of the first poem by William Blake. If everyone did their duty there would be no problem in our society. This situation works very well because of the color of each character in the music he uses and the words of course. From the urgent conspiratorial coloration of the children and their nursery- maid to the forbearing and forbidding tone of the housekeeper and to the naturally strict tone of the sweep master and his assistant who menace the boy with a termination that would deprive them of their profit-making apprentice, something like tarring and feathering him. The scene finds its dynamism in these contrasting elements. The children were so effective in their planning that even Rowan, the nursery-maid falls in the trap and you can imagine her surprise when the children show her Sam in the toy cupboard and they convince her to help make him escape his chimney sweeping fate. And the first thing to do is to give Sam a bath. Here we have a song that is supposed to be sung along by the audience. This song is like a hymn in church and is fast leading to a light joyful song about the new Sam, clean and bright and a short discussion among the children. Sam thus tells us on a dutiful tone that he was sold by his father, his father who broke his hip and could not work any more. Since the parents had no food, they had to sell their son. And Sam proudly admits that he is going to be nine next birthday. The music emphasizes the logic of the situation for Sam who accepts to be sold since it was a way to save his parents from starvation. He just does not ask for how long, and it was a way to provide Sam with a livelihood, even if it is a hard job. All these contradicting elements, and the fact Sam is crying, as we have seen, though the children haven’t, when he is about to go up a chimney is in sharp contrast with his assuming the positive motivations of his parents as well as his own, lead to the next scene. The children are planning a solution: to have Sam put in the travelling trunk on the following day that will accompany the Crome children going back home. A typical children’s solution since that will not solve the problem of Sam’s parents, nor the problem of Sam’s future: what will he do? And what will the Crome parents say and do? But suspend your disbelief for an instant. Especially with the housekeeper who comes complaining about her feet, her joints and the chimney sweeps accusing her of hiding their apprentice, and she scrutinizes the room and finds all kinds of wrong things though we are surprised that she does not see the soot here and there. She just sees some soiled or un-tidied elements, particularly the toy cupboard that she wants to be set in proper order right now. Luckily the music saves us and introduces the most improbable event: Juliet, one of the girls, has just fainted. And that plays the trick. The house keeper is fooled and she takes Juliet to her room to look after her. So the 37

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