Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River
It was during his twelve-day tour of Japan in 1956 that Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) first encountered Noh theatre, and specifically Sumidagawa, the play on which Curlew River is based. His initial reaction to this otherworldly theatrical production—with its highly ritualized movements and sometimes harrowing incantation techniques—was laughter. But before he left Japan, Britten saw the production a second time and obtained an audio recording of it to take home. The idea of adapting this art form for a Western audience—without simply creating a pastiche—never left him over the course of eight years. By 1964, the complex elements of music, theatre, dance, costumes, and story had finally come together to the point that he felt ready to bring Curlew River to life. Britten’s work, in keeping with the Noh tradition, invites us to slow down and enter another sphere of existence, a realm of deliberately stylized sights and sounds reaching back through centuries of ritual.
Noh theatre is an art form dating back to the fourteenth century. A bamboo flute and a set of drums accompany an all-male cast (some playing female characters) as they present a story in chanting and movement, augmented by elaborate costumes and masks representing stock characters. Sumidagawa (the title means Sumida River, a famous river in Japan), for example, features a Madwoman, a Ferryman, and a Traveller—a character who can fit comfortably into every scene while remaining an outsider, asking questions or making comments that introduce plot points. The story follows a woman, out of her mind with grief over her kidnapped son, who travels very far in search of him. She encounters the Ferryman and other travellers, about to cross the Sumida River for the last time that day, and begs to be taken across. They make her perform for them, and she impresses them to the point that they let her on board. While they cross, the Ferryman tells the story of a boy who died on the opposite shore exactly one year ago. The woman realizes that the boy was her son. When the crew reaches the other bank, she visits the grave of the boy, and his ghost appears. As she grasps the air for his spirit, it disappears just as the sun is rising. The play ends with the woman completely despondent.
As a seasoned composer of works for the stage, Britten quickly became enamored of the visual and theatrical elements of Noh (its scant music served only as a jumping-off point for the music Britten would write). For three years of off-and-on correspondence with librettist William Plomer, the working model was an exact retelling of the story that would maintain the Japanese names and setting and keep the plot intact. But Britten wrote to Plomer in 1959 with the somewhat apologetic but firm request that they re-envision the work more in terms of a Medieval religious drama set in England, to be performed in a church. Plomer obliged. The team altered the story in three fundamental ways: they localized the names and the setting (from Japan to the Fenlands of eastern England), modified religious elements (removing Buddhist sentiment in favor of Christian), and overhauled the arc of the plot, abandoning an unhappy ending in favor of a redemptive one. They maintained the idea of an all-male cast (not unfamiliar to those versed in Shakespeare) and set about finding the right visual mood for the show in terms of props and costumes, staging and movement, and instruments on stage. (In Britten’s original production, the singers performed the visual aspects as well; we are fortunate in our performance to have the stunning choreography of Shizumi Shigeto Manale.)
Through the years, Britten was mulling over the music. He drew from a variety of influences to tap into the unique sound world of Curlew River. Two musical motifs are prominent throughout. The chorus of pilgrims begins and ends the work singing the plainchant Te lucis ante terminum (traditionally sung at evening prayer in both Roman Catholic and Anglican practice), creating the sense that Curlew River is more of a meditation than a performance. The melodic contour of this chant, in part and in full, surfaces throughout in both vocal and instrumental parts. Second, the haunting call of the curlew—a resident shorebird of the marshy British Fenlands—is an ascending, broken cry of indeterminate pitch that sounds like currrr-LEW. Britten codified the call musically as an ascending diminished fifth / perfect fourth outlining a major seventh (heard at the Madwoman’s first entrance and repeated throughout) and associated it with the Madwoman’s sorrow and grief for her lost son.
Another musical element that makes up the soundscape of Curlew River is heterophony, a technique that Britten had used in some of his earlier works. This type of composition is prevalent in many non-Western musical traditions, among them Balinese gamelan music and Gagaku (the classical “elegant music” of the Japanese Imperial Court, which Britten also encountered during his 1956 tour). In heterophonic writing, multiple melodies which are similar but not the same are played at the same time, now coming together and now separating. This type of writing can create different sonic effects: in some of the chorus parts especially, the chanting is “blurred,” sounding like a procession going by; in many of the instrumental sections, the heterophony creates an acoustic effect of instruments situated on different sides of a resonant cathedral. The score of Curlew River also invites an element of chance, something quite rare for the rather conservative composer. Please contact the author of these notes, Rachel Evangeline Barham, for permission before using any part of them; they are under copyright. There is no conductor, and the musicians are often asked to wait until others are finished before they play, a direction indicated in the score by a “curlew” sign that Britten invented for this work. The result is that no two performances are alike.
The orchestra of Curlew River includes the Noh-inspired drums and flute, as well as an unlikely group of other instruments that combine to form a sound reminiscent of Japanese music. The string instruments use a tremolo technique, and the harp is asked to play près de la table (near the soundboard), producing a metallic sound. Drums often accelerate their beats as the action becomes intense, and bells accompany poignant moments. One of the more innovative sounds in combination with these instruments is that of the chamber organ. One might imagine this to be a purely Western influence; however, Britten drew the organ writing in Curlew River directly from the sound of the shō, a Japanese mouth organ used in Gagaku music. He bought a shō before leaving Japan and learned the technique for playing it as well as the note clusters used in Gagaku music. The shō is made of seventeen vertical bamboo pipes a little over a foot high, each with a metal reed. Since it plays on both an inhale and an exhale, it is normally used as a sustaining instrument. A Western chamber organ, Britten found, can imitate a shō precisely.
The instruments represent the emotions of the characters in the same way that the costumes and movements of the dancer-actors do. The horn is associated with the Ferryman, the double bass with the footsteps of the Traveller, the flute with the Madwoman (quite specifically with the curlew call of her grief), and the piccolo with the spirit of the boy. As the crew crosses the river from West to East, the organ drones and the string instruments slide up and down in glissandi. At first the harp, double bass, and viola play together, and then each instrument plays alone, the pitch gradually ascending from the low double bass to the viola and still higher to the harp as the east shore is reached. The river is an important symbolic theme in the story: crossing it unites people “By chance or misfortune, /Time, death, or misfortune, /Divided asunder.”
What Britten accomplished in this retelling of an ancient story is remarkable. In his relocated setting, the story—while perhaps unrealistic for an operatic stage—is able to unfold in a way that gives homage to the original but in a way that is novel, due to the emotional underpinning of the instruments combined with the vivid visual presentation. Over the course of the work, we become familiar with fragments of melodies and what they represent, and as the dramatic climax approaches, the previous music melts away. Now we hear something altogether new but at the same time old, the Custodes hominum chant (traditionally sung in the evening for the Feast of the Holy Guardian Angels). The piccolo’s melody, representing the spirit of the child, might normally be the most familiar sound to a Western audience, but now that our ears have been re-tuned to the sound world of Curlew River, it takes on an otherworldly quality. The closing chant, the same as we heard in the beginning, invites us to meditate on what we have just experienced and how its story of redemption can be relevant in our own lives.
Copyright © 2014 Rachel Evangeline Barham, revised 2018