Listening to Britten – The Rescue

Greek text of the Odyssey’s opening passage. Taken from Wikipedia

The Rescue, also known as The Rescue of Penelope – Incidental music for narrator, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone and orchestra (September – November 1943, Britten aged 29)

Part 1
Eight Years Have Passed
Yet Not All Reached Their Homes
Worse Still, The Island
Children Have Died Of Want
Yet Some Trust In An End
Your Prayer Is Answered, Penelope
Long Suffering Odysseus
Listen. The Voices Of The Gods
I, Athene, Rise To The Edge Of Night

Part 2
When I See The Sorrow Of Mortal Odysseus
How Loud The Spring Sounds All Of A Sudden
Bold – Telemachus, Watch The Shadow On The Wall!
There It Is Before You
Listen, Lords Of Ithaca
Telemachus, Be Swift!
Now There Is Silence

Text Edward Sackville-West, based on Homer’s Odyssey
Duration 147′ (concert suite 35′)

Background and Critical Reception

While Britten was occupied with Peter Grimes he still needed to ‘earn his keep’ from day-to-day, a fact pointed out by John Bridcut. His return to England meant work for the BBC was easier to facilitate, and they made no fewer than sixteen commissions from him, including wartime propaganda such as An American in England and Britain to America. These helped his rehabilitation in the wake of his objector’s tribunal, which had taken place in 1942, at which the BBC supported him.

The Rescue was the most substantial of his commissions, with Britten asked to provide music for a drama by Edward Sackville-West based on Homer’s Odyssey. Philip Reed tells the story in comprehensive detail in the booklet notes for the only recording of any of this music, conducted by Kent Nagano. The drama itself received a first broadcast over two evenings late in November 1943.

The Britten Thematic Catalogue entry for the piece lists its total duration at a whopping 147 minutes, but it has since been adapted into a concert suite lasting just a fifth of that time.

Chris de Souza sets out an impressive description of the music in the same booklet, showing Britten’s detailed and often very descriptive responses to the text, which was now a point of instinct for him as a composer.

Bridcut finds here ‘foretastes of Grimes, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even of footfalls in The Prodigal Son. But some of his orchestral effects – such as Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors with twelve arrows from his bow – are unique to this score, which has a sustained complexity uncommon in incidental music’.


The Rescue of Penelope, as it is now known in concert suite form, is indeed a colourful piece of music, and even in the suite the narration does not harm its dramatic impact. It has a very ‘European’ feel, rather than the more obviously English tone of recent works such as the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings and A Ceremony of Carols.

From the off a colourful scene is set by Britten, using luminous orchestration, and as soon as Penelope is mentioned the alto saxophone comes to the fore. This will be her instrument, and its slightly baleful quality here is key in the characterisation. It also uncannily takes the listener to Harlem, which would undoubtedly have still been fresh in Britten’s mind.

Britten continues to use the orchestra with great virtuosity as he describes the scene. The keening horns are key as they describe the city of Ithaca, and its ‘ordeals hard to bear’, while in the trio between Artemis, Hermes and Apollo at the end of Part One a beautiful plateau in D major is found.

As Bridcut notes the representation of Odysseus and his bow, using trumpets, is very strong, while the swooning, romantic climax to the whole suite is both inevitable and well-managed.

While perhaps not first-rate Britten, the composer working under the expectation of commission, it is nonetheless an achievement that deserves far more than the one recording it has had to date, not to mention the fact it appears not to have been broadcast since 1988!

Recordings used

Dame Janet Baker (narrator), Alison Hagley (soprano, Athene), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano, Artemis), John Mark Ainsley (tenor, Hermes), William Dazeley (bass, Apollo), Hallé Orchestra / Kent Nagano (Erato)

The one recording ever made of The Rescue of Penelope has a starry cast, with Dame Janet Baker providing an authoritative narration and all four soloists singing impressively well. The full-bodied accompaniment from the Hallé Orchestra is extremely well marshaled by Kent Nagano, whose dramatic credentials ensure Britten’s characterisations are brought to the fore.


The Rescue of Penelope can be heard here, coupled with Lorraine Hunt singing Phaedra

Also written in 1943: Hindemith – Ludus tonalis

Next up: The Ballad of Lady Musgrave and Lady Barnard

This entry was posted in Incidental music, Listening to Britten, Radio score, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Rescue

  1. Pingback: Working at the Coal Face – Britten on Film and Radio | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Benjamin Britten, The Rescue of Penelope completa |

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