Britten’s Virtual Mystery

In 1964 the first of composer Benjamin Britten and writer William Plomer’s ‘Church Parables’—Curlew River—was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Orford. Britten had been working on the project off and on with his librettist Plomer following Britten’s encounter with Noh theatre during a visit to Japan in 1955. Though the initial intention was simply to set the famous Noh play Sumidagawa to music, it was decided in 1959 that, given that the work was to be premiered in St. Bartholomew’s, it should be ‘a Christian work’ and set in medieval England in the form of a mystery play.1

Britten had two main justifications for the change. On the one hand, he was concerned that the work might ‘seem a pastiche of a Noh play’ and worried that despite his inability to write ‘Japanesy music, [he] might be led into trying if the rest of the production (setting, clothes, moves) were Japanese’2. On the other hand, in keeping with his deep belief in ‘occasional music’, he wished for his work to be moulded to the particulars of its performance environment—to be suited to the venue and comprehensible for the audience. The movement of the work’s action from Japan to medieval East Anglia solved both these issues.

Britten further adapted his work to its church setting through the framing device of the processionals introducing and ending the work. The singers and the undirected ensemble play the characters of monks and lay brothers respectively. Curlew River begins as the troop enters the church chanting the compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum (‘To Thee before the close of day’). The abbot then relates that the ‘Brothers have come today to show . . . a mystery’ of how ‘in sad mischance [a] sign was given of God’s grace’, before the monks change into their costumes for the mystery.3 The work ends similarly; after the monks change back, the abbot glosses the mystery’s meaning and the troop departs chanting Te lucis. The mystery framed by this performance is the adaptation of Sumidagawa: a woman driven mad by the loss of her son, travelling eastward from the Black Mountains, crosses the Curlew River by ferry and discovers there the grave of her son, whose spirit appears and frees his mother of her madness. Thus, Curlew River has two settings: the church in which the parable is performed and the setting of the mystery—that is, the Curlew river and its shores. It is here that the work’s first setting—the church—becomes something of a mystery itself. (In order to avoid confusion, I will refer to the play-within-a-play as the ‘mystery’ or the parable’s ‘action’ and will use the terms ‘work’ or ‘parable’ to refer to the work in its entirety).

Despite all three church parables sharing the same form (chant and processional; introduction; prayer; robing; mystery; robing; exegesis; prayer; chant and processional) and the same actual performance venue (St. Bartholomew’s in Orford), the language used to describe the works’ settings differs. The libretto—published in the year of Curlew River’s premiere—describes the setting in ambiguous language: ‘The scene is set in a church by a Fenland river in early medieval times’.4 The setting of the second church parable, The Burning Fiery Furnace (premiered in 1966), is described in more specific terms: ‘The action of the parable takes place in Babylon in the Sixth Century BC’ The score for the last church parable, The Prodigal Son (premiered 1968), provides no explicit setting whatsoever.5

The ‘scene’ of Curlew River must then be that of the framing device, as the parable’s action takes place on a river and its banks, not in a church. But why this transportation of venue? Why does the church to which the monks travel need to be in the Fens and not further afield in Suffolk? Where are the (likely medieval) churches of the other two parables supposed to be located? These questions do not appear to have definitive answers. However, given that Britten comments upon the location of the church in Curlew River in the programme of the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival,6 he must have considered it important for the audience to understand that the church in which they hear and see Curlew River is not the actual church they see around them—St. Bartholomew’s—but a different church in a different time, despite there being no reference to this virtual church in either the text of the work itself or its minimal staging.7

Can the setting perhaps be found in the music instead? Before answering this question, we must consider how environment is perceived acoustically in the first place. In other words, how do we hear the space we are in? While the cognitive mechanisms of sound spatialization are necessarily complex, our perception of the environment in which a sound is heard is primarily determined by the relationship between direct sound (emitted from a source) and indirect sound (reflected by the environment). Our capacity to hear space is shaped by our capacity to distinguish a sound source in a confusing acoustic environment. The mind creates an auditory scene with two distinct streams in which the sound emanating from the source is foregrounded and the indirect sounds reflected by the environment form a background. This process allows us to perceive our surroundings through audition alone.

If Britten did attempt to transform St. Bartholomew’s into ‘a church by a Fenland river in early medieval times’, what we would expect to find is a sound signal containing elements resembling its own reflections—that is, a direct sound which is perceived as partially indirect. And it is exactly this musical idea which lies at the heart of Curlew River and the other church parables. In the words of the late Peter Evans:

It is rather like beginning again from monody, and creating a new role for harmony: that plainsong should have suggested this role will not surprise anyone who has heard it sung in a large resonant church, for there the line is supported upon a mass of reverberations from earlier notes. Thus we hear monody transformed into a species of polyphony—one that Western music chose not to pursue very far.8

However, Britten’s incorporation of a sound’s potential reverberations into the sound itself is not simply a theoretical framework for the composition, but serves to transfigure the space in which the sound is heard; when the line between direct and indirect sound is obfuscated, the properties of the space surrounding the listener appear altered. In other words, the music’s interior changes its exterior. This effect is particularly prominent in the staggered unisono of the prayer before the robing ceremony:

But as Evans noted, this effect is found throughout the work and cannot always be described as acoustic trickery. In the lead-up to the parable’s climax, as the ‘Madwoman’ slowly comes to realize her son’s fate, the pianissimo strings appear to sound in sympathetic resonance (the vibration of a body in harmonic likeness in response to external vibrations) with the sound of the Madwoman across intervals of time extended far beyond the physically possible—the miracle of her son’s apparition is then perceived within this already miraculous acoustic space.

Does this mean the ‘church by the Fenland river’ has impossible, transmutative acoustic properties? Not necessarily. While the properties of the acoustic space are mutable during the mystery, the same cannot be said of the framing device. The structure of the opening (procession; prolusion; prayer; robing ceremony) is mirrored after the mystery (robing ceremony; exegesis; prayer; procession), with similarly mirrored musical material. Thus the listener is returned to a ‘real’ space after the apparent transformation of the space during the ‘fictional’ action of the parable. By musically augmenting the unreality of the mystery, Britten simultaneously enhances the reality of the space returned to—a space which nevertheless still differs from the actual space surrounding the listener.

In light of this, we can perhaps approach an answer to the questions raised by the different settings of the church parables. While the relation between the location of the framing device and the action of the parable was obviously considered important during the creation of Curlew River, it was disregarded in the subsequent parables. What remained, however, was the relation of the actual venue to the virtual one—its illusory difference. While a detailed comparison between the virtual spaces of the three church parables is not possible here, they are distinct enough that although they were all premiered in the same actual church, and although the virtual space differs from the actual space in each composition, they do not necessarily share the same virtual space. In other words, the actual church is transfigured differently in each parable.

What does all this mean for Britten’s music and his beloved ‘occasion’? Britten believed in writing for particular people and particular places in the present. He fantasized that he could say ‘“All right, this is a work which is written for a special occasion,” and then burn it.’9 However, aside from the adaptation of the libretto, Britten seemed more concerned here with creating a virtual space than with adapting to the actual one. But it must be remembered that although the acoustic properties of St. Bartholomew’s have been left out of this discussion, they were not absent from the work’s performance. While the confusion of direct and indirect sound at its source alters the listener’s perception of their surroundings, that perception is still in some way shaped by the actual environment. The double image—the virtual church and the actual church—is a mixture peculiar to the venue in which the work is performed. Indeed, this double image is part of St. Bartholomew’s itself, with the ruins of the church’s original twelfth-century chancel still standing to its east. Thus, as with the Aldeburgh Festival itself, Britten’s interest in manufacturing spaces through sound should not be understood as contradicting his belief in occasional music, but rather as further evidence of his rich conception of the ritual and theatre of the ‘occasion’ and how it might be realized in the musical discourse of the twentieth century.


Featured image by Prescott Horn on Unsplash.

  1. Letter to Plomer, 15 April 1959, quoted in: Mervyn Cooke, Britten and the Far East: Asian Influences in the Music of Benjamin Britten (Woodbridge, 1998), 142–143. ‘Christian’ underline in original. []
  2. Ibid., emphasis in original. ‘Pastiche’ underline in original. []
  3. Benjamin Britten, Curlew River: A Parable for Church Performance (London, 1983), 2. []
  4. William Plomer, Curlew River. A Parable for Church Performance (London 1964), 9. Interestingly, the liner notes to the 1966 recording state only that the ‘scene is set in a church in medieval times’. Benjamin Britten, Curlew River (London Records OSA-1156, 1966). []
  5. David Herbert (ed.), The Operas of Benjamin Britten: The Complete Librettos (London, 1989), 297, 311. []
  6. Britten writes in the Programme Note to Curlew River, Programme Book for the Seventeenth Aldeburgh Festival, 1964, 19: ‘And so we came from the Sumida-gawa to Curlew River and a Church in the Fens, but with the same story and similar characters’. My thanks to the GHIL for funding the digitization of the relevant extracts of the programme books and to Britten–Pears Arts for making time to scan the many pages required, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances of the ongoing pandemic. []
  7. The only argument that can be made for evidence of the ‘church by a Fenland river’ is in the Abbot’s description of the parable’s action occurring ‘not far from here’ and his use of the possessive plural in referring to ‘our reedy fens’. However, this could easily be indicative of a broader East Anglian, as opposed to a more specific Fenland, setting. []
  8. Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten (Oxford, 1996), 469, quoted in: Graham Elliott, Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension (Oxford, 2006), 118. []
  9. Britten, ‘British Music in the World Today’, in Paul Kildea (ed.), Britten on Music (Oxford, 2003), 270–274, at 273. []

Published by

Paul Labelle

He is a doctoral researcher in the DFG-Graduiertenkolleg 2291 ‘Gegenwart/Literatur’ at the University of Bonn, where he is researching music’s illusions of presence.

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