Nocturnal Dreams and Fantasies in a Poetic Setting

Nocturne Britten.jpg
Beyond the night, beyond time. © Charles Thibo

The British tenor Ian Bostridge in Luxembourg – that sounded promising! I greatly admire his book on Franz Schubert’s “Winter Journey” and his recording of the song cycle together with Leif Ove Andsnes. He came to Luxembourg a few weeks ago to present Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Op. 60, a collection of English poems set to music by the composer in 1958. The lyrical assortment moves from Shelley, Tennyson and Coleridge to Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and finally Shakespeare. All poems gravitate around nocturnal themes: dreaming, sleep, mortality, moonlight, solitude, eery sounds, light and shadow.

To like or not to like…

I must confess, I don’t know much about Britten’s oeuvre and after my first encounter with “Nocturne” I was confused, even lost. The music is wonderful, but I found the singing awkward. And it certainly wasn’t Ian Bostridge’s fault. He actually liked what he did. You could see that. Unfortunately I didn’t like what he did. Very strange. The voice seemed like an alien element in an otherwise excellent match between the mood of the different poems and the instrumental themes.

Britten wrote this song cycle for tenor, strings, and seven compulsory instruments: flute, English horn, clarinet, bassoon, harp, French horn and timpani. For each section (each poem), with the exception of the first, one of the compulsory instruments comes into play. I found this an interesting idea, and after the concert I decided to listen to this piece a few more times, this time on a recording of The Strings of the London Symphony Orchestra  and Sir Peter Pears, for whom the composer wrote the vocal part.

The Kraken and the bassoon

And I was right not to give in to my first negative impression. By now I truly like “The Kraken” (Tennyson) where the bassoon sets a sombre, distressing atmosphere and Coleridge’s “The wanderings of Cain” with its delicate and beautiful harp melodies. The music written for Owen’s “The Kind Ghosts” is just as poetic as the poem itself and the English horn plays a paradoxically reassuring funeral march, a stark contrast to the pizzicato* of the strings. Keat’s “Sleep and Poetry” which sees the intervention of the flute and the clarinet is the part that irritated me most when I heard it first – and I still don’t like it. Luckily there’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII, the finale with all instruments seeing action, to reconcile my ears with Britten’s ideas.

Britten dedicated “Nocturne” to Alma Mahler,the widow of Gustav Mahler. Britten was familiar with Mahler’s music, he had heard his Symphony No. 4 as early as 1930 in London. It was Britten’s reverence to a composer that he admired and to composition’s that influenced his musical thinking. The central idea – the night and the missing logic of dreams – allowed Britten to express ideas that otherwise would have seem disjunct. “The great thing about Benjamin Britten’s song-cycles with orchestra is that they exist at all”, Ian Bostridge told The Guardian in 2005. “The orchestral repertoire for tenor is all too small”. Right. If Britten hadn’t written “Nocturne”, I would perhaps never had a chance to listen to Ian Bostridge in Luxembourg.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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