Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71

Tickencote, Rutland: the Norman Chancel Arch by John Piper (1964). (c) The Piper Estate

Curlew River, Op.71, a parable for church performance (January – 26 March 1964, Britten aged 50)

Dedication To Michael Tippett, in friendship and admiration
Text William Plomer, from the medieval Japanese Nō play ‘Sumidagawa’ by Jūrō Motomasa
Duration 70′

Audio clips

Taken from the Decca recording with the composer, with Peter Pears as the Madwoman, John Shirley-Quirk as the Ferryman, Bryan Drake as the traveller and Bruce Webb as the boy. With thanks to Decca.

Te lúcis ante términum

I am the Ferryman (Ferryman)

I come from the Westland (Traveller)

But first may I ask you (Ferryman, Madwoman)

Clear as a sky without a cloud (Madwoman)

Ignorant man! (Madwoman)

Curlew River, slowly flowing (ensemble)

Today is an important day (Ferryman)

Ferryman, tell me, when did it happen (Madwoman)

Hoping, I wandered on (Madwoman)

The moon has risen (ensemble)

Go your way in peace, mother (ensemble)

Good souls, we have shown you here (ensemble)

Background and Critical Reception

Curlew River owes its origins directly to Britten’s first visit to Japan with Peter Pears. William Plomer (the Gloriana librettist) had urged him to take in a Noh play, and on 11 February 1956 he saw Juro Motomasa’s Sumidagawa. So affected was Britten that he went to see the play again the following week, taking a reel of the production back to Aldeburgh.

The seeds were sown for the new production there and then, but it took a long time for Britten and Plomer to finalise their plot and the methods of performance. The delay was partly due to the composition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the War Requiem, but also represented a hesitation on the part of the composer, who was aware that he was about to strike out in a new direction. Plomer had made a suggestion for the libretto but Britten eventually declared, ‘it is a little electrifying to have to think of transposing the story into Christian terms’. In this way what began as an opera needed a new label, and the ‘church parable’ genre was created.

This was done in Curlew River by having the missing child of the original story made into a local saint, with his grave a place of pilgrimage that monks would visit. The plot is very succinctly summed up by the stage director of the first performance, Colin Graham, and quoted in Claire Seymour’s new book, The Operas of Benjamin Britten:

‘It tells, very simply, of a Noblewoman who, driven mad by grief when her son is kidnapped, comes to a ferry. A boat waits to take pilgrims to a miracle-shrine on the further bank, but, because she is mad, the Ferryman refuses to carry her over until her despair moves him and the other pilgrims to feelings of guilt. During the journey he tells of the miraculous happenings at the shrine – the grave of a young child – and the Madwoman recognises her son from the story. At the tomb they are comforted by a vision of the boy and his mother is relieved of her madness.’

Donald Mitchell, one of the most insightful of Britten scholars and a close friend of the composer, draws a sharp comparison between the role of the Madwoman and the title character of Peter Grimes, with particular reference to the emotional torments through which they pass. In a fascinating and revealing chapter The Church Parables, published as part of The Britten Companion, he suggests the roots of Curlew River go back to Peter Grimes and Saint Nicolas. ‘I am the last person to deny or try to diminish the exciting strangeness and originality of the church parables’, he writes, ‘which in a wealth of ways offer a wholly unusual experience. Yet it we look back across the years we find, fascinatingly, an edging towards the style and conception of the parables in works which at first sight may seem totally alien to their exotic world.’

In his biography of Britten, Humphrey Carpenter gives a detailed and engaging account of the lead-up to the first performance at the 1964 Aldeburgh Festival. Britten was concerned that Colin Graham should not by any means see any Japanese Noh plays, as he did not want his new work to become a pastiche. Instead he wanted it to be a point where East meets West, both musically and geographically.
Two further elements were added to the production. The first was a procession in and out of church to the chant ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, a familiar setting for Britten works, but the insertion of a solemn robing ceremony before the play itself begins was a new departure.

A further point of concern was Peter Pears dressing in character to play the Madwoman; Britten was very concerned this had to be done right, and it was apparently the buzz of Aldeburgh before the first performance. On the night itself there was a heavy storm and a power cut, so Orford Church did not resound to the processional until 9:30pm.

In the event Britten’s worries were unfounded, for Curlew River received an extremely positive reaction, and many of the audience were deeply moved by Pears’ performance in particular.


Just as Canticle I: My Beloved Is Mine felt like a turning of the page in Britten’s output, so does Curlew River feel like a new chapter for the composer. It may have been briefly heralded in pieces like the Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente and the Nocturnal after John Dowland but here is an almost totally new way of thinking for Britten, fully justifying the long and considerable struggle over the piece and how it should be staged. This is almost certainly a sign of the importance in which the piece was held.

From the very opening of the work it is clear something different is afoot, especially if Curlew River is experienced in person, which it really should be. The procession is very different from A Ceremony of Carols, or the framing of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings by the horn Prelude and Postlude. These works have sounds and sights that we would recognise live; Curlew River most definitely does not, with the use of robes and masks. The use of plainchant is the only connecting feature, but the solemn robing ceremony takes place before the story itself is told, really heightening the expectations of the audience as the note clusters of the chamber organ comes to the fore.

When Britten’s music itself begins the sonorities have an elasticity that is hardly evident in earlier writing. With the performing ensemble stripped back even further than the already small English Opera Group, there is a freedom of expression even works such as The Turn of the Screw did not offer. This is mainly through Britten’s innovative ‘curlew mark’ in the music, where players are asked to be more instinctive and improvisatory, to feel their performance as much as to read it on the printed page, but is also enhanced by the liberal and imaginative use of percussion. When this collides with Medieval chant the result is like nothing you will have heard before.

The story itself is uncommonly moving, the passengers on the boat across the Fens coming to realise that the Madwoman on whom they sneeringly looked down is actually the mother of the young boy whose shrine they are visiting. That this Madwoman should be played by a man is a brave move indeed, though it is made logical through the use of monks to tell the full story. Pears’ unusual voice is also a considerable asset, fully encouraged to project its feminine qualities, and when the character enters the scene, from the back of the church, the mood changes abruptly to one of high tension. The vocal keening to this part further unhinges the senses, especially when the Madwoman pleads to be let on to the boat.

Even for Britten the instrumentation is extremely imaginative. Flute, double bass and harp sound together in a very accurate portrayal of music he would have heard in Bali and Japan, with the prompting of the percussion suggesting music that is very accurately imported from the Far East of the world to the Far East of England – and given Britten’s own distinctive imprint in the meantime. This much is clear from the snarling horn that introduces the Ferryman, or the flute that portrays the curlew of the river. Meanwhile the bells used as the Madwoman’s son is summoned are similar to the start of the Sanctus from the War Requiem.

The descriptive writing does not stop here, either. The water laps at the boat through the glissandi of the strings, harp and flute, but the multiple stops on the low double bass suggest its progress through the reeds is rather laboured at times. Even the openness and greyness of the Fens themselves is conveyed by the chamber organ, with its misty clumps of chords. These also show another example of Britten utilising the space for which he was writing, in this case Orford Church.

If you have not yet experienced Curlew River in the flesh then I would strongly urge you make its acquaintance. Along with the War Requiem it is a place where Britten brings his abilities as a composer of the church and the stage together, yet this time with an economy and breadth of musical language that is unusual even in his own output. The result is an unusual and very mysterious piece of work, simultaneously derivative and original, an utterly compelling marriage of East and West.

Recordings used

Peter Pears (Madwoman), John Shirley-Quirk (Ferrywoman), Harold Blackburn (Abbot), Bryan Drake (Traveller), Bruce Webb (Voice of the Spirit), English Opera Group Chorus, English Opera Group Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

For such an important work in Britten’s output, it is a considerable surprise to report the existence of only three recordings of Curlew River, with two of those currently unavailable! The one version we are left with, however, is as good as you would imagine from such forces as Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk and Britten himself, who is listed as conductor although the work does not specifically demand one. Pears’ voice is ideal for the role of the Madwoman, and he brings an appropriately unhinged but extremely touching quality to it. Shirley-Quirk is a commanding Ferryman, and the instrumentalists are exceptional. The recording, too, is commendably open with a strong sense of perspective.

There is a digital recording from the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields on Philips, made in 1997. Philip Langridge is the Madwoman, Simon Keenlyside the traveller and Thomas Allen the Ferryman. Koch Schwann also have a hard-to-find version with Mark Milhofer as the Madwoman, Gwyn Hughes Jones as the Ferryman and the Guildhall Chamber Ensemble directed by David Angus.


Britten’s recording of Curlew River, the only available version on Spotify, can be heard here.

Also written in 1964: Henze – Der junge Lord

Next up: Cello Suite no.1, Op.72

This entry was posted in Church parable, Listening to Britten, Opera, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Listening to Britten – Curlew River, Op.71

  1. garethhevans says:

    As a musical laymen, I’m taken aback by the lack of performances of the church parables. Although, I did realise after attending a performance of The Burning Fiery Furnace once how difficult they are to perform.

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – The Burning Fiery Furnace, Op.77 | Good Morning Britten

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

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

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