In Four Quartets T. S. Eliot wrote:
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words after speech,
Reach into the silence.
It is this silence, the silence beyond words, the quiet or not so quiet of night and dreams, into which Britten ventures. His Nocturne (1958), the culmination of decades of preoccupation with the nocturnal as a theme, investigates these territories beyond: beyond time, beyond language, beyond waking articulation. In his combination of words and music Britten explores the forests of the night. This works in two ways. Firstly, and most obviously, by the very act of providing musical enhancement of the poetry he has chosen he is helping the words to speak into the silence with a new resonance, to acquire a different identity when combined with music. Britten's text settings are rarely if ever simple augmentation of poetry. His songs represent a series of complex interactions between literature and music, with the result that a new, dynamic form is created that is the product of a marriage of the two genres. Secondly, he reaches into the silence beyond words in his choice of themes, assembling eight poems that together create a musico-literary dramatisation of what happens when our unconscious takes over, and night sounds replace the more mundane noises of the day.
But Nocturne represents far more than mere augmentation of poetry by musical highlighting; Britten's selection and setting of the poems he chooses is a complex act of interpreting the texts – a form of interdisciplinary literary criticism, as well as a creative work in its own right. This chapter examines Britten as literary critic – as poetry anthologist, almost. How is he working with, and perhaps even against, the texts he carefully selects for Nocturne? One way to answer this is to try to retrace his steps as he develops his ideas for the piece. Most music written to set words begins its inspiration with the words themselves. Here Britten began with a theme: night, and a sense of what fascinated him about it. He selected and positioned his texts to suit his purpose, to fulfil his aim and to facilitate the expression of what it was he wanted his music to say. So it goes without saying that to examine these choices and the poems themselves reveals something of his intention.