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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2019

6 - Britten's Drops: The Lyric into Song

from Part I - Perspectives


Writing in the Observer on 5 June 1960 about his newly completed opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream, one week before its Aldeburgh premiere, Britten anticipates what he imagines will be the inevitable criticism of his and tenor Peter Pears’ loose handling of the Shakespearean text in their libretto: ‘I do not feel in the least guilty at having cut the play in half. The original Shakespeare will survive. Nor did I find it daunting to be tackling a masterpiece which already has a strong verbal music of its own.’ It is probably with his sensitivity to the ‘verbal music’ of a character such as Puck that Britten has him speak rather than sing his admittedly singsong lines, albeit in a haunting parlando. Here are the lines (III.ii.448–52), uttered to Lysander within earshot of the four sleeping mortals who have at last found their common ground:

On the ground

Sleep sound;

I'll apply

To your eye,

Gentle lover, remedy.

Taking inspiration from these magic drops, Britten wields a magic of his own, a sound-drop, applied to our ears in the form of a ground bass and a series of ‘magic chords’ that comprise the passacaglia. Like Shakespeare, Britten clearly delights in punning, and one finds musical puns throughout his programme music. For instance, a pun of this nature appears in his setting of the folk song, ‘I Will Give My Love an Apple’ (Folk Song Arrangements, vol. 6: England, 1961), which has the rhyming couplet, ‘I will give my love a palace wherein she may be, | And she may unlock it without any key’ – this last phrase, ‘without any key’, prompting Britten to adopt strange chords and cross-rhythms, so that the song bears little resemblance to Vaughan Williams’ (much earlier) setting of it in Folksongs for Schools. Then, in The Turn of the Screw (op. 54, 1954, libretto by Myfanwy Piper after Henry James) there is Britten's knowing use of the celesta – a kind of small upright piano that sounds like a glockenspiel, whose name derives from the French word céleste, meaning heavenly – ironically to invoke the diabolical presence of Quint, or the name Quint itself, which suggests both the pentatonic scale and the perfect fifth, the characteristic joyfulness of which gives lie to the inveterate despondency (and doom) of its utterer.