Listening to Britten – Nocturne, Op.60

Moonrise on the Yare (?) by John Crome. Photo (c) Tate

Nocturne for tenor, seven obligato instruments and string orchestra, Op.60 (August – September 1958, Britten aged 44)

1 Promethus unbound (excerpt) (Percy Bysshe Shelley) (strings)
2 The kraken (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) (strings with bassoon)
3 The wanderings of Cain (excerpt) (Samuel Coleridge) (strings with harp)
4 Blurt, Master Constable (Thomas Middleton) (strings with horn)
5 The Prelude (1805; excerpt) (William Wordsworth) (strings with timpani)
6 The kind ghosts (Wilfred Owen) (strings with cor anglais)
7 Sleep and poetry (John Keats) (strings with flute and clarinet)
8 Sonnet 43 (William Shakespeare) (all instruments)

Dedication Alma Mahler
Text Various, as above
Language English
Duration 25′


Using the very first recording of the Nocturne, made by Peter Pears (tenor) and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca.

1 On a poet’s lips I slept

2 The kraken

3 Encinctured with a twine of leaves

4 Midnight Bell

5 But that night when on my bed I lay

6 The kind ghosts

7 Sleep and poetry

8 Sonnet 43

Background and Critical Reception

Nocturne was the first piece Britten completed in its entirety at his and Pears’ new home of the Red House. It continues a trend for night-themed works in Britten’s output around this time.

As with the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Britten chose an anthology of poetry with night as its central theme. Paul Kildea identifies the sources as Carol Stewart’s Poems of Sleep and Dream, and Cecil Day Lewis’s edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury., noting also how they were ‘the compilation of a real poetry lover, someone who had read anthologies since boyhood.’

Once again Pears was the vehicle for Britten’s thinking as a vocalist, but rather than use a horn in tandem with the tenor voice as before, the composer chose six obbligato soloists – bassoon, harp, horn, timpani, cor anglais, and flute and clarinet together. With the strings alone in the first setting, the instruments then unite with them for the seventh and final poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, which Kildea describes as one of Britten’s ‘slow reveals’, like the Sonnet at the end of the Serenade, or Before Life and After at the close of Winter Words.

The cor anglais is used in the setting of Wilfred Owen’s The kind ghosts, and draws parallel with Mahler’s use of the instrument in Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler is linked to the work far more definitively, however, through its dedication to his surviving wife Alma. Britten had met her while in New York – she attended the first performance of the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo – and the two remained in correspondence. She was deeply honoured by the dedication.

Interestingly the Serenade began with a working title of Nocturnes, and the proportions and construction of each work ensures they are closely linked. Kildea, however, identifies the later work as ‘subtler and more integrated…and far more ambitious.’ He sees it as ‘a stunning dress rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ In its exploration of the power and possibility of night, and the compelling marriage between danger and beauty, it prefigures not just that opera but a host of ‘night works’ in the early 1960s.


I do wonder how well Britten was sleeping when he moved in to the Red House in 1958, for where the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings conveyed the lengthening shadows of a very British evening, the Nocturne is kept awake by apparitions and troublesome noises, leading to the restlessness that insomnia brings. By this time it is also abundantly clear Britten is using his experience of lying awake in other, hotter countries such as Bali, for the music here has an omnipresent heat haze.

The choice of solo instruments to complement the tenor soloist is fascinating, and nor is it logical. Britten shuns the ‘glamourous’ solo instruments to bring out the ones that most effectively evoke the sounds he has in mind. For this reason the bassoon is an ideal choice to play Tennyson’s Kraken, a step on from the ‘monstrous elephant’ portrayed by the horn in the Serenade‘s Pastoral.

Midnight Bell is spooky indeed, the clock striking but all manner of other noises disturbing the peace, while Britten writes for the horn in a very different way to the Serenade, exploiting some weird effects available through the pipes. Most effective of all, though, is the ominous roll of the timpani that grows in presence as Wordsworth’s But that night when on my bed I lay progresses.

This is also where the tenor really comes in to his own, with an anguished outburst of ‘Sleep no more’ as the music reaches its highest dynamic, before a fatal blow falls from timpani and strings together. Mahlerian in scope, It is one of the most powerful moments in all of the Britten listening so far.

Britten writes for the voice with greater variety here, too. Initially it appears like a ghostly vision, but when singing of the mewing cats in Middleton’s Blurt, Master Constable, it takes leave of human form. This poem recalls some of Britten’s writing in The Turn of the Screw, with sounds that fray the nerves at night.

The strings, too, are in on the picture painting, the double basses often resounding threateningly at the bottom of the texture. The ticking of the clock they evoke in The Kind Ghosts becomes creepy and obsessive.

Throughout the Nocturne there is a terrific tension that refuses to let up, and as in the Serenade it is left to the last song to offer some resolution. This, the celebrated setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43, lays the listener to rest, but hardly in a spirit of complete comfort! Perhaps this is why the Nocturne is – to pardon the pun – one of Britten’s ‘sleeper’ works. It is every bit as good as the Serenade, but where the Serenade just about keeps its fears under wraps, in this case the skeletons are out of the closet for all to observe long before the end.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Robert Tear (tenor), English Chamber Orchestra / Jeffrey Tate (EMI)
Philip Langridge (tenor), English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Naxos)
Mark Padmore (tenor), Britten Sinfonia / Jacqueline Shave (violin) (Harmonia Mundi)

Once again Pears brings to this work a powerful punch that can at times move the soul very deeply. The high notes he hits in The Kraken are beautifully rendered.

Langridge is recorded in a very wide sound picture, which brings pluses and minuses. On the plus side the wide expanse of sound suggests a hot summer evening, but the tenor is a little too removed from the orchestra in the recording picture. He does however give a very strong performance, and the outcry ‘Sleep no more’ brings a chill to the blood.

The fuller voice of Robert Tear is also well worth exploring, but my choice of a modern version would be Mark Padmore. The Britten Sinfonia are more closely recorded but this has the effect of putting the instrumental night noises through an amplifier, heightening the sense of disquiet that Padmore already brings.


Assembled on this playlist are several versions to be confirmed!

Also written in 1958: Humphrey Searle – Symphony no.2, Op.33

Next up: Bonny at morn

This entry was posted in French, Listening to Britten, Song cycle / collection, Songs, Songs with orchestra, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Nocturne, Op.60

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Night Piece (Notturno) | Good Morning Britten

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74 | Good Morning Britten

  3. G May says:

    The mewing cat is in the Middleton poem, not the Coleridge

  4. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Lord! I Married Me A Wife | Good Morning Britten

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