Listening to Britten – The Prince of the Pagodas, Op.57


Britten and Pears on holiday in Bali, 1956. Image courtesy of www.britten100.org

The Prince of the Pagodas, Op.57 – a ballet in three acts for orchestra (early 1955 – Autumn 1956), Britten aged 42)

Dedication Britten’s assistant Imogen Holst and the ballerina and Sadler’s Wells artistic director Ninette de Valois
Duration 115′

Prelude

Act I
Scene: The palace of the Emperor of the middle kingdom
Variation of the King of the north
Variation of the King of the east
Variation of the King of the west
Variation of the King of the south
Variation of Princess Belle Epine
Variation of Princess Belle Rose and pas de deux

Act II
Scene 1: The strange journey of Belle Rose to the pagoda land
Entrée: Sea horses, fish creatures and waves
Variation: Sea horses
Variation: Fish creatures
Coda: Sea horses, fish creatures and waves
Pas de deux Male and female flame
Variation: Male Flame
Variation: Female flame
Coda: Male and female flames and corps de ballet of flames
Scene 2: The arrival and adventures of Belle Rose in the kingdom of the pagodas
Pas de deux: The prince and Belle Rose

Act III
Scene 1: The palace of the middle kingdom. Belle Epine is now Empress
Scene 2: The pagoda palace
Pas de six: Entrée
Variation 1: Pas de Deux
Variation 2: Girl’s solo
Variation 3: Boy’s solo
Pas de trois
Coda
Pas de caractère: The Emperor and the fool
Pas de deux: Belle Rose and the prince of the pagodas
Variation: The prince
Variation: Belle Rose
Finale

Audio

Clips from the first recording of the ballet, with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca.

Prelude

Act I
The Fool and the Dwarf

Gavotte

The Four Kings

The King of the North

The King of the East

The King of the West

The King of the South

The Kings and Belle Rose

Triumph of Belle Epine

Act II
Air

The Pagodas

The Prince and Belle Rose

Act III
Belle Epine as Empress

Pas de Six

Pas de Deux

Finale

Background and Critical Reception

November 1955 was an important time for Britten and Pears, as they set out on a world tour. As they left Britten was struggling to complete The Prince of the Pagodas, his first full length ballet score, which had been commissioned by the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in January 1954. The trip was to provide him with the necessary inspiration needed to get the project over the line.

Britten was halfway through the score when he and Pears arrived at Bali in early 1956, but here he witnessed gamelan techniques and found the stimulus for the pagoda music itself, compiling a set of manuscripts of music he heard on the island. Although he had previously encountered the music of Bali with Colin McPhee in New York, he had not yet used it as part of his own music – however this visit was to give him the time and place to do so.

Mervyn Cooke, writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, suggests an appearance alongside Poulenc at the BBC Proms may have been a contributing factor too, for the piece they were performing – the Concerto for Two Pianos – also has a gamelan episode. Cooke examines the sonorities Britten achieves through ‘an intuitive grasp of the structure and instrumentation of gamelan music and an astonishing ear for percussion sonorities.’

The recently published book Imogen Holst: A Life in Music takes up the story of composition through the eyes of Britten’s valued assistant. ‘Arriving back in England in March, he was faced with a deadline to submit the work by August which soon began to keep him awake at night. Faced herself with the massive task of preparing the full score, Imogen Holst had brought in Rosamund Strode to help. Britten told her: ‘I’ve never written so many notes in my life – all those bits of thistledown dancing on the stage actually need a tremendous amount of music.’

There was a slight reprieve for Britten’s deadline in the form of preferred conductor’s Ernest Ansermet’s unavailability, which meant he had an extension of several months and was able to work with Holst on the score while on holiday in Switzerland. However Ansermet pulled out permanently, which meant Britten – with recurring bursitis – had to undertake conducting duties himself.

Holst also details a lack of interest in the ballet from Peter Pears, who was seemingly disinterested over its lack of a vocal part. He famously went for a haircut when Britten’s stress levels were soaring prior to the premiere. Her biography talks of ‘a nurture of distrust’ that began at this point, one she could never fully ignore.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward, written by John Cranko. In it, an Emperor’s two daughters compete for the right to inherit his throne, and he chooses the older sister Belle Epine over the more righteous and beautiful Belle Rose. The younger sister however is transported to Pagoda Land, where she meets a prince – with whom she returns to her father’s land to rule, driving her older sister away.

John Bridcut details how the ‘peculiar plot does not allow much room for dramatic manoeuvre, but Britten, through his startlingly vivid musical motifs, at least gives it both coherence and continuity.’

Thoughts

Britten returns to orchestral music with his largest ever purely orchestral score; and it is a vibrant and extremely colourful one. The unashamed influences of Russian ballet run throughout the score, but that is an asset rather than a handicap, one that Britten uses as a starting point for his own writing rather than means to an end. So although at times the music carries the lasting influence of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty or Prokofiev’s Cinderella the major imprints are unmistakeably Britten’s own.

His continued invention with instrumental combinations is a wonder to behold, especially in the depictions of the pagodas themselves, the orchestral percussion – including two pianos – struck simultaneously to give a really eye opening effect.

There are bold colours painted here, melodies aplenty, and a lot of charm. This is found particularly in the melting saxophone melody Britten uses to portray The Old Emperor early on in Act 3, backed by a plaintive accompaniment from the bassoon. Meanwhile The Salaman is a graceful and elegant waltz that swells with the strings, a lovely moment. The March and Courtiers Dance is rather cheeky, while the portrayal of The Kings and Belle Rose on muted strings is exquisite.

Nearly every scene is a feature worthy of comment. The Fool and the Dwarf balances solemn held brass with jerky interjections from the strings and percussion, while the portamento of Fish Creatures is really rather weird but very effective, a kind of disaster ride out of control. The heavy set artillery fire of timpani and harsh piano in Variation of the King of the South is unusually aggressive for Britten, while the upward sweep to the violins in the Variation of the King of the North is similarly energetic. The Pagoda Palace has music of great splendour, and as Act 3 progresses Britten manages to keep a sense of onward momentum, although at this point the story is a little stretched.

The sense of drama cultivated in previous stage works – and now choral works – is at work here too. The offstage trumpets in the Entry of the Pages and the Four Kings are evidence of Britten’s continued awareness of the value of dramatic placement, adding an extra perspective to the sound.

Britten’s score is also a forward looking one. Belle Rose born in by the Fro is a very striking example from early on in Act 2, its driving energy offering a pointer towards the music of John Adams in the momentum it generates with the development of relatively little melodic material.

The Prince of Pagodas, then, is a lot of good fun, and despite the lack of performances in his lifetime Britten’s biggest ballet score is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves, justifying its composer’s exertions. It may be a bit too long but that is more the story’s doing than the composers, for Britten has written a lot of winsome music here, which incorporates the music of Bali, Russia and England to exotic and often intoxicating effect. It is a pivotal work – from now on a good deal of Britten’s music and staging will fall under the spell of this world tour, the composer’s ears truly open to the language of other cultures.

Recordings used

Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
London Sinfonietta / Oliver Knussen (EMI)

Britten’s own recording contains some cuts sanctioned by the composer, so the only true full recording of the ballet is that made by Oliver Knussen, conducting an enlarged London Sinfonietta. Fortunately this account contains all you could wish for from such a colourful score, with incredibly skilful playing and well drilled ensemble, excellent recording that brings out the essence of Britten’s orchestration, and a full bodied sound that works really well in the louder passages. The Pagoda music itself made me jump at the first listen, so arresting is its impact, but there is a lot of charm in the dance episodes, and a beautiful saxophone solo to depict the old Emperor.

Britten’s version is a much coarser recording but is full of energy and wit. The lean textures bring precision to the rhythms but a little less charm in the slower dance episodes, where Knussen excels.

Spotify

Happily both the recordings of the ballet score are available for streaming, along with a version of a suite made by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke. Oliver Knussen conducts the London Sinfonietta in the fullest version here, while Britten himself conducts the Royal Opera House Orchestra here. The suite, coupled with music by Colin McPhee, can be heard here, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Also written in 1956: Walton – Cello Concerto

Next up: Pas de Six (from the Prince of the Pagodas), Op.57a

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2 Responses to Listening to Britten – The Prince of the Pagodas, Op.57

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

  2. Pingback: Britten on Record: Balinese Ceremonial Music | Good Morning Britten

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