Listening to Britten – Billy Budd, Op.50


Sea breakers by Jane Mackay. Used with many thanks to the artist, whose work can be viewed on her own website Sounding Art

Billy Budd – Opera in four acts, Op.50 (January 1950 – 2 November 1951, Britten aged 37 – then revised to two acts in September 1960)

Dedication To George and Marion (the 7th Earl of Harewood and his wife, for whom Britten wrote A Wedding Anthem
Text E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, adapted from the novella by Herman Melville
Language English
Duration 155′

Audio and Video clips

You can watch an entire broadcast of Billy Budd here, as recorded in 1966 for the BBC. The principal characters are those as recorded by Britten himself for Decca in 1960, with Peter Glossop as Billy Budd, Peter Pears as Captain Vere and Michael Langdon as John Claggart. The supporting cast includes John Shirley-Quirk, Bryan Drake, David Kelly and Kenneth MacDonald, with the Ambrosian Opera Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Mackerras.

Selected clips from the opera’s first recording, conducted by Benjamin Britten with Glossop, Pears and Langdon in the roles described above. With thanks to Decca.

Act 1
I am an old man who has experienced much (Captain Vere)

Pull, my bantams! (ensemble)

Your name? Billy Budd, sir (John Claggart and Billy Budd)

Billy Budd, king of the birds! (ensemble)

Starry Vere we call him (ensemble)

Gentlemen, the King! (Captain Vere and ensemble)

Blow, blow, blow (Ned Keene)

We’re off to Samoa by way of Genoa (ensemble)

Over the water…Handsomely done (John Claggart)

Come here. Remember your promise (John Claggart, Novice)

Act 2
With great regret I must disturb your honour (John Claggart, Captain Vere)

Deck ahoy! Enemy sail on starboard bow (ensemble)

There you are again, Master-at-arms (John Claggart, Captain Vere)

Claggart, John Claggart, beware! (Captain Vere)

Master-at-arms and foretopman (Billy Budd, Captain Vere, John Claggart)

God o’ mercy! Here, help me! (Captain Vere)

William Budd, you are accused by Captain Vere (ensemble)

Poor fellow, who could save him? (ensemble)

I accept their verdict (Captain Vere)

Here! Baby! Dansker, old friend (Billy Budd and Dansker)

And farewell to ye (Billy Budd)

According to the articles of War (ensemble)

We committed his body to the deep (Captain Vere)

Background, Plot and Critical Reception

After the relatively small scale of the chamber operas The Rape of Lucretia , Albert Herring and The Beggar’s Opera, all written for the English Opera Group, Britten returned to the big stage of the Royal Opera House with Billy Budd.

Commissioned for the Festival of Britain, the opera brought him into direct contact with E.M. Forster, whose article on George Crabbe’s poem The Borough had so affected Britten during his American stay, planting the seeds for Peter Grimes. As Philip Brett writes in The Britten Companion, ‘it seems to have been an almost predictable match between a literary minded composer and a musical novelist who shared country, class, and to a large extent, beliefs’.

Almost simultaneously the two arrived at Harold Melville’s novella Billy Budd as their starting point for an opera, Forster effectively persuaded out of a self-imposed retirement, as he had tired of writing about ‘the love of men for women and vice versa’. Eric Crozier was also drafted in, this being Forster’s experience of writing a libretto, and they both produced a text written entirely in prose, a first for opera. In his notes for Glyndebourne’s recording of the opera Philip Reed sets a vivid scene of the two working on the libretto at Crag House in Aldeburgh, while Britten composed the Spring Symphony in his study in the same house. When that was finished Britten joined the collaboration full-time, and spent most of 1950 working on the music, using an all-male cast for the first time.

The trio largely followed Melville’s story, with a few necessary amendments for the operatic stage. The plot centres on Billy Budd, a shipmate who joins the crew of the Indomitable, a ship at sea in 1797, during the Napoleon era. It is under the stewardship of the well-loved Captain Vere, referred to affectionately by his downtrodden men as ‘starry Vere’. Budd, an athletic man, has a stammer and temper that can surface at points of high tension. He quickly becomes a favourite of officers and crew, who refer to him as ‘beauty’, and morale on the ‘Indomitable’ is boosted. However Claggart, the Master at Arms, senses a threat to authority, not to mention his own increasing attraction to the sailor. As the two elements combine, he resolves to provoke Billy and ultimately destroy him. Enlisting a novice to sway him with thoughts of mutiny and promotion, he plants gold on the sailor, enough to take him to Captain Vere with accusations of misbehaviour and treason.

At this point the French are sighted, the action switches to possible armed conflict (with a chorus of ‘This is our moment!’), and a shot is fired. As the furore dies down, the attention returns to Budd. On meeting the Captain he swears total allegiance to Vere, but when Claggart arrives the accusations are revealed. Billy’s stammer returns and he strikes out, catching the Master at Arms in the forehead and killing him outright. Billy is led immediately to trial but, when given the opportunity to save him, Captain Vere stands silent, and a verdict of death by hanging is pronounced. Billy is hanged from the yardarm the next morning.

This action is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue, in which the old captain recounts the story and believes himself exonerated by Billy’s final words, ‘Starry Vere’.

Britten initially placed the drama in four acts, which Philip Brett describes as a symphonic framework, but he then revised the opera to two longer acts in 1960, removing a choral scene where the men glorify ‘Starry Vere’. He recorded this edition for Decca immediately after. The premiere of the original version, however, took place at the Royal Opera House on 1 December, 1951. After it Britten wrote to his two collaborators, declaring they had ‘written incomparably the finest libretto ever’.

Britten scholars are united in their praise of the opera, but there are wildly differing views on the morality played out within. For Arnold Whittall ‘the dramatic issues are explicit and all-pervading, but the music does not merely match them: it takes possession of them’. He gives as his main example the tension between the notes of B and B flat throughout the opera, eventually resolved ‘in favour of B flat, the implicit triumph of good over evil’.

For David Matthews, Billy Budd is ‘Britten’s grandest opera, and in some respects his greatest’. He picks out the chorus at the centre of Act One, where the ship’s crew are singing sea shanties. ‘A tremendous, overwhelming feeling of nostalgia is embodied in the words ‘say farewell’, repeated over and over again in rich cannon. But unlike Delius’s lingering farewells, it is not filled with regret. It is a farewell to youth, life, love; but all in a spirit of acceptance, and an almost religious feeling for the sea as the great mother. Britten rarely revealed himself with so little inhibition and so much emotion; he was never to do so quite so powerfully again.’

Captain Vere’s character is perhaps the most controversial. For Whittall, ‘The conflict within Billy, the conflict between him and Claggart, the conflict between the English and the French; only the devious Captain Vere avoids such conflicts or, it is possible to feel, uses Billy to fight his battle for him.’

‘It would be consistent with what is known of Britten’s beliefs’, he goes on, ‘and with the atmosphere of many of his other works, for the Vere of the opera to be seen as fundamentally corrupt, and for that interpretation to be expressed more directly than in Melville. Yet it is war itself which the opera implicitly condemns, rather than the tools of war, however gladly Vere and his subordinates clutch at the comforting certainties of its simple morality.’

Michael Oliver admires Britten’s craft, revealing that Billy Budd is ‘orchestrally resourceful. It has to be: low voices are less able to penetrate orchestral textures than high ones, and the particular colour of the opera is partly due to Britten’s many skilful solutions to this problem’.

His ultimate conclusion, as with many Britten scholars, is that Budd is a ‘powerfully exciting work’.

Thoughts

Of all Britten’s works for stage, it is surely Billy Budd that provokes the most outright tragedy and sorrow. For the subject of this vast and all-encompassing opera is one of Britten’s most likeable heroes, but has a fatal natural flaw that ultimately does for him, provoked by the ghastly Master at Arms, John Claggart.

The scene between Captain Vere, Claggart and Budd in Act 2 is one of the opera’s dramatic high points, and the moment when Billy snaps and punches Claggart is shocking and briefly thrilling. Yet although there is the brief elation at the realisation the Master at Arms is removed from the scene, it is swiftly replaced by horror at Billy’s plight, a terrible feeling that deepens when it transpires Captain Vere is not going to exercise his authority so that Budd’s execution might be avoided. The mood at this point is desolation, and the men become rebellious but are forced below decks. On looking back Captain Vere might feel vindicated, but the tragedy far outlasts his epilogue.

Some of Britten’s very finest music lies within this opera. The choruses are thrilling, the first, the recurring theme of ‘O heave, o heave away’, an atmospheric evocation of the world close to the waves as the oarsmen struggle manfully against the current, depicted in a thick fog of strings and timpani. Then, after the flogging of a Novice in Act 1, saxophone and chorus unite in a mournful duet, ‘lost forever on the endless sea’. Later in the same act, when the men of the ship are singing sea shanties below decks, Britten gathers his forces until the music has an awesome power, with the full throated men’s chorus singing ‘Blow her away!’ (to which Matthews refers above). Vocal and orchestral forces unite in the fullest flow, sounding for all the world like a homage to the climactic point of his teacher Frank Bridge’s orchestral suite The Sea, one of Britten’s early discoveries. It is as if a massive wave is breaking over the bow of the ‘Indomitable’, and the music is utterly overwhelming.

Billy Budd is a timeless tale, its miscarriages of justice easy to project on to cases of domestic violence and the like today. Its climax, however, is deliberately ambiguous. The conversation between the Captain and Billy, where Vere reveals the decision of the court, is not heard by anybody, so Britten has to provide a musical representation. He does so in a series of thirty-four chords from different sections of the orchestra, each a word or phrase in itself, leaving an intensity of feeling that is almost unbearable in the context of the verdict. We move from disbelief and fury to bleak resignation, and a peace of sorts. Meanwhile the chords – or an appropriation of them – also accompany the close of Billy’s final aria.

As for Claggart, his is a blackness not yet heard, even in Grimes. Britten gets a unique flatness to his voice that is utterly evil, removing all redeeming features from his character. Even the musical accompaniment is conniving, the trombones that slide to his aid creepy in the extreme – in a similar key and profile as those in the storm of Peter Grimes, but at a much slower tempo. With the night closing in, as Claggart sings the aria ‘Oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness!’ (which ultimately ends in his plotting of Budd’s destruction), the dark and evil thoughts brooding in his mind are clearly played out through the bass strings, just before we hear him sing. Meanwhile plaintive woodwind surround the Novice as he takes in the enormity of his mission to help Claggart destroy Billy Budd. Even visions of Claggart are terrifying, and Vere’s description, ‘He has a hundred eyes!’, is a horrible moment – thankfully dampened by the beginning of the sea shanties below decks, which is a wonderfully realised sound effect.

Billy’s writing is also very strong, in particular Britten’s treatment of the stammer. The affliction introduces even more tension when Budd is trying to get his words out, and the orchestra suffers with him. Even the seamen sympathise with his plight, for at the moment of execution they register their discontent through a stammering fugue that is highly disconcerting. Yet when Budd is in full voice, as he tends to be more often, he lifts above the orchestra in an energetic swell.

The plot is curiously static; and quite slow moving, but that only adds to the tension on board ship. At the start of Act 2 there is gathering excitement of the possibility of a confrontation with the French, but as that fizzles out, the claustrophobia of Billy;s predicament returns.

Billy Budd is regarded as one of the finest operatic achievements of the 20th century, and many regard it as the equal of Peter Grimes, perhaps even its superior. As a drama, and a tragedy, it can scarcely be surpassed, and is unquestionably one of Britten’s greatest works.

Again, as with many Britten operas, a warning should be issued that this is very tiring music of unremitting emotional intensity, which can often result in a headache – the two acts are each more than an hour of continuously powerful music, with little to no light relief. It is yet more proof of Britten, Forster and Crozier’s mastery of dramatic setting.

Recordings used

DVD

Thomas Allen (Billy), Philip Langridge (Captain Vere), Richard van Allan (John Claggart), John Connell (Dansker), English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, David Atherton (Arthaus)

A film of the 1988 ENO production.

CD

Peter Glossop (Billy Budd), Peter Pears (Captain Vere), Michael Langdon (Claggart), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Simon Keenlyside (Billy), Philip Langridge (Captain Vere), John Tomlinson (Claggart), Tiffin Boys’ Choir, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Nathan Gunn (Billy), Ian Bostridge (Captain Vere), Gidon Saks (Claggart), London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Daniel Harding (Virgin Classics)

Jacques Imbrailo (Billy Budd), John Mark Ainsley (Captain Vere), Phillip Ens (Claggart), Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (Glyndebourne)

Original version in four acts

Thomas Hampson (Billy Budd), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (Captain Vere), Eric Halfvarson (Claggart), Manchester Boys Choir, Hallé Chorus and Orchestra / Kent Nagano

Billy Budd has an extremely fine discography, particularly when including Kent Nagano’s world premiere recording of the four-act original. However it is to Britten’s recording that one must turn first of all, and it is an account of searing intensity.

Daniel Harding also conducts an exceptional version, with Ian Bostridge as Vere. The only quibble I would venture to offer here is that when he sings ‘I am an old man’ in the Prologue he still sounds relatively young.

Richard Hickox boasts a starry cast of singers, with the mature Philip Langridge a very convincing older Vere, Simon Keenlyside a bounding main part and the figure of Claggart horrifically realised by Sir John Tomlinson. The London Symphony Orchestra, who appear on three of the main Budd recordings, play like a dream.

The Glyndebourne production, handsomely packaged, is a tour de force. Particularly impressive is Christopher Maltman as Captain Vere, with a consistent clarity of tone, but also Jacques Imbrailo as the young sailor Budd, an ideal mix of youthful charm and rugged aggressiveness.

Spotify

There are plenty of choices for Billy Budd listeners on Spotify. Britten’s 1960 recording for Decca is available here. Meanwhile there appears to be a version of the world premiere available here, with Theodor Uppman in the title role and Peter Pears playing Captain Vere.

The Richard Hickox version on Chandos can be accessed here, while Daniel Harding’s recording for Virgin Classics is here. Kent Nagano can be heard conducting the original four-act version here.

Finally Harold Melville’s story, read by the actor Christopher Timothy, can be heard by clicking here.

Also written in 1951: Vaughan Williams – The Pilgrim’s Progress

Next up: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op.51

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3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Billy Budd, Op.50

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Golden Vanity, Op.78 | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Owen Wingrave, Op.85 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Death in Venice, Op.88 | Good Morning Britten

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