Best of all for me was the opera Billy Budd. I must admit it's decades since I last devoted time to sitting through a whole opera and I'd not seen this one before (I'm guessing I'm not the only one). I watched the Glyndebourne production of it on TV last week and I was glued to it from beginning to end. It's based on the novella by Herman Melville of the same name (which, I have to say, I've not read). The libretto was written by EM Forster and Eric Crozier. Written in 1951, the opera has, unusually, an all-male cast. It's set on a British battleship during the wars with the French at the end of the 18th century. Billy Budd is a very likeable man, almost angelic. Significantly with regard to the plot, he stammers. Like Tom Bowling in the song, he's the darling of the crew. However, one man aboard the ship, the Master-at-Arms John Claggart, hates him. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny. Called to account for himself before the incredulous Captain Vere, Billy, rendered speechless by his stammer, lashes out in frustration at Claggart, killing him. Although Billy is univerally loved and Claggart universally hated, the Captain -who compares Billy's actions to those of an angel- and the officers can find no alternative but to sentence Billy to hang from the yard arm, the only punishment for striking a senior officer in time of war. "Starry Vere, God bless you!" sings Billy as he faces execution, horrified by the thought that those who have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to sentence him to death will have to live with the consequences.
It's a many-layered story made richer by the fact that in it, the monarchist British are fighting the republican French. Opera is often said to be an elitist art form: Billy Budd is a good example of why it is not. I mentioned the song, Tom Bowling and a quick look on the internet tells me that the work of the author of the song was known to Melville and that the song itself may have influenced the creation of the story. Significantly, perhaps, Melville tells us Billy "was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing", a talent among several he shares with Tom:
Tom never from his word departedThis song made me cry as a child when my mother played it on the piano. It still does. And I defy anyone to sit through Billy Budd with a dry eye.
His virtues were so rare:
His friends were many and true hearted
His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly
Ah! Many's the time and oft;
But mirth is turned to melancholy
For Tom is gone aloft
For Tom is gone aloft.
Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)
The DVD of the Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd can be bought from the Glyndebourne website.
This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.