Listening to Britten – Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70

Photo (c) Estate of John Piper courtesy of Portland Gallery, London

Nocturnal after John Dowland: Reflections on Come, heavy sleep for guitar, op. 70 (11 November 1963, Britten aged 49)

Dedication Julian Bream
Duration 18′


Clips of the Nocturnal, and the song on which it is based, can be heard below. With thanks to Hyperion.

Dowland: Come, heavy sleep (Mark Padmore (tenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute)

1. Musingly: Meditativo

2. Very agitated: Molto agitato

3. Restless: Inquieto

4. Uneasy: Ansioso

5. March-like: Quasi una marcia

6. Dreaming: Sognante

7. Gently rocking: Cullante

8. Passacaglia: Measured (Misurato) – Slow and quiet (Molto tranquillo)

Background and Critical Reception

After writing songs for voice and guitar for the previous five years, Britten’s return to instrumental music gathered further momentum with this intriguingly structured composition. In it he revisited two familiar themes – one more recent, the music of the night, and one from 1960, when the composer wrote his first set of variations on a theme of John Dowland in Lachrymae, for viola and piano.

More specifically Britten wanted to focus on the moment between waking and sleeping, and the curious thoughts and noises that occur at this time. The Dowland song Come, heavy sleep was his starting point. As lutenist Elizabeth Kelly explains in her booklet notes for a Dowland-Britten collection on Hyperion, ‘the song hovers in the shadows between G and B major, exploring the ambiguity of scale patterns common in English music at this time (neither quite modal nor quite tonal). This perfectly encapsulates the slippage between sleep and death, between rest and disturbance.’

As with Lachrymae, Britten structured the work so that the variations came first, with the theme itself arriving right at the end as sleep falls. There is a range of different moods and tempi, before the composer deploys his favoured tool, the Passacaglia, in an extended last section that builds up to the statement of the song’s tune.

Arnold Whittall recognises the difference between the Nocturnal and the work preceding it. ‘From the public face of a work first performed in Geneva at ‘the solemn ceremony of the commemoration day of the centenary of the Red Cross’ to the intimacies of an extended piece for solo guitar ought, perhaps, to produce extreme contrast between assertion and allusion. But the Cantata misericordium is far too gentle a work to assert, while Nocturnal is very precisely constructed, not in the least vague about its essential processes.’

Nocturnal was first performed by its dedicatee, Julian Bream, at the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival.


Given its history, it will come as no surprise to learn that the Nocturnal is best experienced last thing at night, when all is quiet. It is even more effective on a summer night, for there is a humidity to Britten’s writing that does on occasion become uncomfortable, especially when the composer is exploring the fretful thoughts that can arrive at this time of the night.
The piece remains edgy the whole way through, the variations giving the guitarist plenty of freedom for expression but only occasionally falling to a slower tempo. Here the writing is exotic, the unison slides of the Dreaming variation in particular looking forward to later interpretations of Bali, but elsewhere the thoughts are intensely personal, vocal in all but name.
It seems to me that Nocturnal is actually a very important piece in the way it signposts Britten’s later style, one that prefers just one or two lines at a time and is more concentrated and intimate in its expression. There is very little bluster here, more music of compressed thought, with not a note wasted.
As the passacaglia develops the guitar becomes obsessed with the same, falling six-note theme, which begins to dominate the piece as a nagging motif – but before that becomes too much the pure major key tonality of Dowland’s music finally emerges in the quotation of the original song in the final stages of the work, and has the same heartfelt effect as its corresponding passage in the Lachrymae – although this one doesn’t quite finish, as Britten’s subject can finally fall to sleep, the work disappearing under the covers.

Recordings used

Julian Bream (Sony)
Julian Bream (EMI)
Craig Ogden (Hyperion)
Stephen Marchionda (Chandos)
Eduardo Fernandez (Decca)

Julian Bream is the obvious choice here, either on Sony or EMI, for he has all the tools at his disposal for a strongly coloured account of the Nocturnal, as well as having the advantage of knowing what Britten wanted to hear, and having it written for him. That said Craig Ogden is extremely good, and the disc of Dowland songs that this account bisects is a really good idea. Stephen Marchionda is good, too, part of an interesting disc that includes Songs from the Chinese with Philip Langridge. Eduardo Fernandez also creates a humid night-time atmosphere.


Unfortunately none of the versions listed above is available on Spotify, but there is an enjoyable account from Jukka Savijoki that can be heard on this album, which includes Ian Partridge singing songs for tenor and guitar.

Also written in 1963: The Beach Boys – Little Saint Nick

Next up: Curlew River, Op.71

This entry was posted in Chamber music, Listening to Britten, Solo instrument and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Listening to Britten – Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op.70

  1. Joe Bryce says:

    One of my favourite pieces of music by any composer at any period in any style. Never tire of it. And what a period this is in his career, in 6 years we get Noye’s Fludde, Nocturne, Dream, War Requiem, ‘Cello Symphony, Nocturnal and – still to come – Curlew River and the first ‘cello suite (another favourite). Such a flood of masterpieces in so short a time has few precedents.

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71 | Good Morning Britten

  3. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Lachrymae, Op.48a | Good Morning Britten

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