Listening to Britten – The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37

Britten and Ronald Duncan at Glyndebourne, 1946. Image courtesy of the Britten-Pears Foundation

The Rape of Lucretia – Opera in two acts, Op.37 (23 January – 3 May 1946, Britten aged 32)

Dedication Erwin Stein
Text Ronald Duncan, after ‘Le viol de Lucrèce’ by André Obey
Language English
Duration 110′

Audio and Video clips

The trailer for the 2013 Glyndebourne production, directed by Fiona Shaw:

A podcast on the 2013 Rape of Lucretia is available for download here

Selected clips from the recording made by Benjamin Britten for Decca with Dame Janet Baker in the title role. With thanks to Decca.

Act 1
1. Rome is now ruled by the Etruscan upstart (Male Chorus)

2. It is an axiom among kings (Male and Female Chorus)

4. Who reaches heaven first

7. There goes a happy man! (Tarquinius and Junius)

12. Time treads upon the hands of women (female quartet)

Act 2
2. She sleeps as a rose (Male and Female Chorus)

4. Tarquinius, Lucretia, Male and Female Chorus

6. Oh! What a lovely day! (Lucia and Bianca)

8. Flowers bring to every year (Lucretia and Bianca)

10. Lucretia! Lucretia! (Collatinus and Lucretia)

11. Last night Tarquinius ravished me (Collatinus and Lucretia)

12. This dead hand lets fall (ensemble)

13. Epilogue: Is it all? (Male and Female Chorus)

Background and Critical Reception

Britten was not a composer for following like with like, so in retrospect it is no surprise at all that an opera as massive and popular as Peter Grimes should be followed by something as controversial and sparse as The Rape of Lucretia. Yet this opera, too, has a central character whose very fibre is shaken and questioned by a tragic event.

Colin Matthews, in a powerfully written booklet note for Oliver Knussen’s recent recording of the opera on Virgin Classics, makes the point that unlike Grimes, the story of Lucretia was brought to Britten. The librettist, Ronald Duncan, had already collaborated with the composer on This Way To The Tomb and a few smaller works, and Lucretia was to be their dramatic apex.

First the plot had to get past the Lord Chamberlain’s censors. Paul Kildea reveals how the eventual approval of Lucretia’s story line shaped the whole opera, with a crucial part of the rape scene itself removed and replaced with rather softer material. The removed item suggests Lucretia as complicit to her assaulter, Tarquinius, the plot as it remains becoming far more ambiguous.

The rape scene itself occurs a little way into Act 2, after the setting – Rome under Etruscan rule in the fifth century BC – has been fleshed out and the characters introduced and profiled. Tarquinius and his fellow soldiers are a testosterone-heavy lot, and have been taking advantage of the soldiers’ wives – all expect Lucretia, whose chastity is actually hugely respected by Tarquinius. However this becomes a point of obsession, exaggerated by the goading of his friends. The plot switches between their bravado and the more respectful household of Lucretia, with her two doting maids. Her love for her husband Collatinus is unshakeable and unconditional, which of course makes the second act all the more tragic. In it Tarquinius arrives at Lucretia’s bedside and, enraptured, forces himself on her. Whether or not she complies the next morning finds her distraught and beyond redemption, confessing what she sees as a crime to her husband. He tries to pacify her, declaring that ‘if spirit’s not given, then there is no need of shame’, but at that she says ‘Even great love’s too frail to bear the weight of shadows’, and takes her own life.

Britten was uncomfortable leaving the plot at this point, and asked Duncan for a specifically Christian epilogue that offered redemption to Lucretia’s soul through the forgiveness of sins.

Lucretia has received contrasting reviews from Britten scholars. John Bridcut is far from impressed with the finished product. For him the ‘start of the opera is bumpy…with rather too much information’. Indeed, ‘the whole libretto suffers from an over-‘poetic’ flavour’. He goes on to say, ‘There are some people who rate Lucretia as Britten’s finest opera. For me, it remains problematic. There have been recent performances of the score before the 1947 revisions which Britten made to sharpen the pacing. But the problems are unresolved.’


Many an opera goer or listener will not have encountered this work due to the title alone. I certainly hadn’t until now – and of all Britten’s works so far in the listening, this is the one I approached with most trepidation. The fault may well be mine, for the plot is not one I warm to at all. If you find yourself in the same position, this interview between Jessica Duchen and Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s director Fiona Shaw is an excellent starting point. Shaw not only explains the plot and the morality behind it, but gets to the bottom of Britten’s explorations of human instinct and guilt. With its context properly explained, I found the opera itself easier to deal with.

So what of the music? It is very different to that of Peter Grimes, and in fact could hardly be a greater contrast. Where Grimes used nigh on 200 performers, Lucretia uses a specified 22 – nine singers and twelve instrumentalists. Two of the singers are the male and female ‘chorus’, commentating on the story as it unfolds, as if from opposite sides of the stage.

The opera hinges on two intensely dramatic scenes, the first where Lucretia is ‘ravished by Tarquinius’, as she calls it, the second where she tells her husband of the encounter and, feeling the most intense remorse, kills herself in front of him. Britten’s musical responses could hardly be more potent. For the rape itself it shivers with uncomfortable anticipation before completely throwing itself to the ground. After this the mood becomes flat, devoid of almost all feeling, Lucretia’s voice hollow as death itself when she finally arises the next day. Her maids’ bright ‘good morning’ chorus could hardly be less appropriate. The utter futility of her life is now evident – she has more or less already died – and Britten plays this out in monotone vocals and uncomfortable orchestrations.

At this point the music takes on an unhinged savagery, raw emotions let loose and musical notes rendered much less certain. All refinement in the score is lost, the exotic views of the Roman surroundings rendered more or less futile. As Lucretia kills herself the music surges up the scale, cast and orchestra pushing upwards in a horrifying whole. This is effectively the end of the opera and contains some terrifically dramatic music. Only the epilogue regains some humanity, the chorus singing in a wondrous unison. Yet while this final redemptive scene does still feel like an add-on, Britten clearly wanted it to be there, and the fact it arrives in the key C major illustrates the purity he is striving to regain. But it is a hollow end indeed, the opera tainted by what has gone before.

There is some music of real but fleeting beauty here. When the chorus duets at the start of each act the harmonies melt the heart, recalling the serenity of the Hymn to St Cecilia, almost as if in another life. Then there is a striking motif, begun by a pizzicato twang on the double bass, returning frequently to underpin the music, suggesting the heat haze of Rome in a faintly exotic air.

Britten uses his instrumental combinations with imagination and flair, securing unusual colouristic effects that point forward to his later, scaled-down works such as the church parables and Phaedra. This increasingly feels like the idiom in which he wants to work.

However I don’t think I could ever get to a point where I would say I love this work – in fact at times I would struggle to say I even like it – but it definitely earned some of my respect. But that’s a wholly personal take.

There are moments of pure musical inspiration for sure, but as a single piece of drama – as a night of entertainment even – it is not a work to which I will often return. Don’t let that put you off, by any means – but do be prepared for music of unremitting intensity and eventual darkness, as Britten explores the very depths of the human soul.

Recordings used


Jean Rigby (Lucretia), Russell Smythe (Tarquinius), Richard Van Allan (Collatinus), English National Opera Orchestra / Lionel Friend


Nancy Evans (Lucretia), Frederick Sharp (Tarquinius), Norman Lumsden (Collatinus), English Opera Group Chamber Orchestra / Reginald Goodall (EMI)

Dame Janet Baker (Lucretia), Benjamin Luxon (Tarquinius), John Shirley-Quirk (Collatinus), English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Jean Rigby (Lucretia), Donald Maxwell (Tarquinius), Alastair Miles (Collatinus), City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Angelika Kirchschlager (Lucretia), Peter Coleman-Wright (Tarquinius), Christopher Purves (Collatinus), Aldeburgh Festival Ensemble / Oliver Knussen (Virgin Classics)

Britten first recorded Lucretia in 1947, in an abridged version that exists on EMI with Nancy Evans taking on the title role.

In the Glyndebourne production Evans rotated the role with Kathleen Ferrier. In a tribute to the singer, found in Kathleen Ferrier: Her Life (Penguin), he speaks of how ‘She was naturally nervous on the first night (12th July 1946) and in the interval, in spite of the great beauty of her personality and her lovely singing, the act was considered to have gone to the male and female chorus. But at the end her nobility and the deep pathos of her ‘confession’ brought Lucretia, the tragic Roman matron, right to the fore’. There is a recording of Ferrier in the title role, issued on Pearl, but it is unfortunately not currently available.

Britten’s second recording of the complete plot was for Decca in 1970, with Dame Janet Baker as Lucretia and Benjamin Luxon as Tarquinius. Peter Pears sang the part of the Male Chorus. It is brutally intense at times, and claustrophobic – but brings home the story with real power.

Only two modern digital recordings have been made of the opera, with Richard Hickox on Chandos and a live version from the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival, conducted by Oliver Knussen and released earlier this year. Knussen brings out Britten’s invention in orchestration and has incredibly strong vocal performances from Christopher Purves as Collatinus and Angelica Kirchschlager as Lucretia, who is particularly terrifying when her innocence is lost towards the opera’s closing pages.


Three of the four available recordings are all on Spotify. Britten’s Decca recording can be accessed here, while Richard Hickox conducts a highly regarded version on Chandos, with Jean Rigby in the title role, here. Knussen’s recent live recording can be found by clicking here.

Also written in 1946: Copland – Symphony no.3

Next up: Fanfare, ‘The Eagle Has Two Heads’

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37

  1. I do have a copy of a performance in the Netherlands from October 5, 1946 released on Music & Arts. It’s excerpts only though. Kathleen Ferrier is singing the part of Lucretia here.

  2. All the time I hear Kathleen Ferrier I seem to get into a different kind of mood. She creates her own musical world. In Lucrecia the whole thing feels pretty ghostly, makes the story even more odd. I am a fan of Kathleen’s. Recently bought the Centenary Edition that Decca put out of her. On it is also the world premier recording of Britten’s Spring Symphony from Amsterdam in 1949.

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Beggar’s Opera, Op.43 | Good Morning Britten

  4. Pingback: Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.45 in F sharp minor, ‘Farewell’ | Good Morning Britten

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