Saturday, 30 November 2013

Benjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Frankly, I'm not a great fan of the centenary industry - the world seems to be full of people poring over lists of dates looking for things that happened in years gone by, arbitrarily hitching them to the fact that we count in base 10. However, in the recent case of Benjamin Britten, I've found everything I've seen and heard about him quite gripping.

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 departed
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)
This 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.

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.


am said...

Thanks for embedding that YouTube video. Now I want to see the opera Billy Budd. Because a friend of mine is a cellist and has played in local performances of operas, I have found myself attending operas in the last few years for the first time in my life. Now I want to suggest Billy Budd to the local opera company.

And you got me looking for versions of "Tom Bowling" on YouTube. Thank you.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for that. Is that amateur or professional opera? I wonder how hard BB is to do? I'd guess BB's all-male cast wouldn't appeal to amateurs, who'd want to involve all their regulars. I would like to be involved in Britten's amateur-friendly Noyes Fludde at least once though.

Thanks for mentioning Tom Bowling. I thought I'd embedded a video of it. It's not the first time a bit of html code for a video has just, weirdly, vanished from a post here. Is it me catching a key or is it a software glitch, I wonder?

George said...

Very interesting, Dominic. During my university days, I read several Melville novels, including the novella Billy Budd, but I was unaware of the opera until reading this piece. Thanks for sharing this.

Gwil W said...

I went to the Billy Budd production starring Bo Skovus but I had a very bad seat and could only see less than half the stage, also a tourist group constantly standing and sitting before and behind me failed to add to my enjoyment. I hope to see it again sometime.

Jenny Woolf said...

I have very much enjoyed the Britten documentaries. I haven't seen Billy Budd and missed the TV transmission. The opera I have NOT seen mentioned during all the celebrations is his children's opera "The Little Sweep" which contains one of his most beautiful songs, in the most appalling performance here (the only one I can find online).

Britten intended for the child audience to be taught the night sounds and to sing them in parts, along with the children of the cast - very easy. And of course it should be in English. And sung by children.

Rachel Fenton said...

How wonderful - thanks for this post, Dominic - great bit of sleuthing on your part - and I enjoyed the behind the scenes vid, too!

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

George: So you've read the book and not seen the opera. Me, vice versa. It was a gripping watch.

GwilW: Better luck next time. The Gyndebourne version on DVD is brilliant. There's an older one on Youtube, too.

Jenny Woolf: Yes. We did The Little Sweep at school. I think it's a shame the BBC didn't televise the production of Noyes Fludde they broadcast on Radio 3 during their Britten weekend, which meant only dyed-in-the-wool music fans would listen. Too "risky" no doubt. Go for the safe option - the Muppets' Christmas Carol.

It has to be said the BBC, to their shame, took no risks in their centenary celebrations. The high quality of the (not new) documentaries masked the fact a bit, I think.

Give it another ten years and the news'll be read by glove puppets.

Rachel Fenton: There may be a graphic novel in it? Come to think of it there probably is already...

A Cuban In London said...

Confession time: I don't like opera. I wouldn't say I hate it because I do enjoy a few arias now and then. Especially the more famous ones. When it comes to middle-of-the-road music, it's opera and not pop or rock where I go all soft and commercial. I will, however, check out Billy Budd. Thanks for the recommendation.

Greetings from London.

Alan Burnett said...

I must confess it is a work I know nothing of - indeed it is an art form I know hardly anything of. But your post made me sample something different and for that I thank you.

Anonymous said...

I came late-ish to Britten's operas, opera itself being something a closed score to me! But my extraordinarily culturally sorted school straightened me out concerning the former, if never the latter. But 'Tom Bowling' was an early - and continuing - tearjerker for me too.