The Prodigal Son, Op.81, a third parable for church performance (November 1967 – April 1968, Britten aged 54)
Dedication for Dmitri Shostakovich
Text William Plomer, after Luke chapter 15: 11-32
Taken from the Decca recording with the composer, with Peter Pears as The Tempter / Abbot, John Shirley-Quirk as the Father, Robert Tear as the Younger Son and Bryan Drake as the Elder Son. With thanks to Decca.
Jam lucis orto sidere (procession)
Ah you people (Abbot)
The ceremony (ensemble)
I am father to you all (Father)
Forgive my asking you (Tempter, Younger Son)
Father, may I speak to you? (Younger Son)
Take your due portion (Father)
Welcome, welcome stranger! (chorus)
You have gambled and lost (Tempter, Younger Son)
Now – I have done what I said (Tempter)
With joy I sowed (Younger Son)
My son (Father)
O sing unto the Lord (ensemble)
My children, you have seen (Abbot)
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s third church parable tells a very appropriate story, for it is based on one of Jesus’s own parables from the New Testament. In choosing the subject matter, however, the composer appears to have been keenly aware of some very keen parallels with his own life story.
The first inspiration for the setting was an after-hours tour of the Hermitage in Leningrad in Moscow in the winter of 1966. There, Britten and Pears saw Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son, and the seed for the new work was planted. On returning to England Britten contacted William Plomer, his librettist for the two previous church parables, and the two constructed another work of similar length and musical forces, to be performed at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival.
In a sense the parable has two distinct messages. When two sons are given their inheritance by their father, the elder opts to stay at home and continue working, while the younger leaves home and squanders all his money on ‘fast’ living – gambling, drinking and prostitution. Then, when he runs out of money and realises his mistakes, he returns to his father, who welcomes him with a feast – to the indignation of the elder brother, who has been living quietly and ‘correctly’ the whole way through.
As one of Britten’s most recent biographers Neil Powell points out the theme of forgiveness is one that leaves Britten with a corrupted individual who is redeemed at the end of the story. This is in spite of a new character Britten and Plomer introduced, the Tempter, played by Pears. He takes a familiar stance akin to that of Claggart (Billy Budd) and Quint (The Turn of the Screw), and is in fact the first person we become acquainted with in the parable, plotting to lead the younger son astray.
Composition of The Prodigal Son was fraught with difficulty and illness for Britten, and after recording Billy Budd for Decca he was confined to hospital in Ipswich for over a month with a heart condition diagnosed as endocarditis. Yet against doctor’s orders he completed the work, writing much of it in Venice.
In her recently published book The Operas of Benjamin Britten – Expression and Evasion, Claire Seymour identifies the autobiographical thread thought to lie within this work. She describes these as ‘echoes from the past, for the Tempter’s words recall Britten’s 1937 setting of Auden’s Underneath an Abject Willow – ‘Act from thought should quickly follow’.
The Prodigal Son receives a lukewarm reception from Britten commentators. Neil Powell is among the more charitable, describing it as ‘tamer and less groundbreaking than its two predecessors…it nevertheless has some claim to be regarded as the most satisfyingly coherent of the three church parables.’ John Bridcut, however, pulls no punches. ‘There is a pious quality to this work (rather as there is in Owen Wingrave) which acts as bleach to both drama and music’, he writes. Compared with Curlew River, the audience is left uninvolved with any of the characters, and at the end the Elder Son’s unbiblical capitulation at being reconciled with his brother seems simply feeble.’
I think it harsh to label The Prodigal Son as a merely derivative work. While it may not pack the same emotional punch as Curlew River, or have such inventiveness with the instrumentation as The Burning Fiery Furnace, it is a setting that makes sense, its story a true church parable.
Unfortunately, as Bridcut observes, there appears to be an imbalance in the structure, where not enough time is given over to those elements of city life that cause the younger son to completely lose himself in evil. Those scenes that do appear are chaotic, the pace of city life fully evident underneath the screech of the trumpet and over the rolling drums.
What does come through very strongly, though, is the autobiographical thread, which occurred to me on seeing a performance of the work at Southwark Cathedral, prior to reading Claire Seymour’s thoughts on the matter. The Tempter is surely a representation of W.H. Auden, with his phrases ‘show yourself to be a man’, and ‘Enjoy yourself!’ Yet his boastful phrase ‘See how I break it up!’ is uncomfortable, especially as its wording now has resonance with present day dance music, which of course is not Britten or Plomer’s fault! These are often accompanied by harp – which could be Auden’s instrument – and it thrums persuasively when the Tempter is at work. The copious use of the viola at this point strongly suggests Britten’s character too. The big city of temptation could even be New York, and the fact that the viola assumes such importance in the drama only heightens the sense of unease and comparison.
The processional chant is rather moving to begin with, but then as soon as the robing ceremony is done we hear from the Tempter. When he casts his spell he is often prefaced by the seductive cooing of the small boys’ choir and accompanied by a particularly florid harp (Auden), while the viola (Britten) protests in response but ultimately gives in. When the Younger Son heads off to the city the percussive shaking is deliberately ponderous, making his footsteps slow and laboured, but on his return the shaking speeds up to a frenzied pace, as if he is running towards his father. The city scenes, meanwhile, are briefly chaotic, especially within the reverberant acoustic of a church, but then unclear. The Younger Son is paying for ‘pleasures’ but it is not entirely clear what they are, save the game of cards that robs him of his final savings.
There are once again some striking instrumental sonorities, especially in the robing ceremony where the small ensemble muse on the processional chant, while Britten’s writing for viola and harp is typically vivid, a sign also of his understanding of the latter instrument that was to yield a Suite in the near future. The moment when the Father sees his Younger Son is key, the solace of a warm B flat major chord reminding us of the early ceremonial musing on the plainchant. The same music returns in D when the two sons are reconciled with their father, a rare if scarred happy ending in a Britten stage work.
The Prodigal Son, then, may be the poorer cousin of Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, but in my view there is nowhere near the difference in quality between the three that some commentators have perceived. Its story retains a powerful punch, particularly in today’s climate of banking excess and financial greed. Britten ensures that at least is fully communicated.
Peter Pears (Tempter/Abbot), John Shirley-Quirk (The Father), Robert Tear (The Younger Son), Bryan Drake (The Elder Son), English Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
It is a mystery that Britten’s church parables have barely been touched since the composer’s own recordings, and The Prodigal Son is one that has just the one recording. This is however a fine document, with Pears in particular standing out as a wheedling Tempter. His rich, persuasive voice is most uncomfortable when entreating the son to ‘go and taste the wine’.
The instrumental sonorities are perfectly caught in the reverberant recording made in Orford Church, and the sense of perspective as the procession passes is rather special. In time it is to be hoped the Mahogany Opera will commit their fine interpretations, first performed at Aldeburgh and then around the country, to a visual or audio recorded medium. In the meantime there is a BBC Music Magazine cover disc, from 1997, where The Prodigal Son is performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Simon Halsey.
Britten’s recording of The Prodigal Son, still the only available version, can be heard here as part of a previous Decca edition, Britten conducts Britten.
Also written in 1968: Shostakovich – Violin Sonata, Op.134
Next up: Tit for Tat