Listening to Britten – Owen Wingrave, Op.85


Benjamin Britten conducting the recording of Owen Wingrave. Used courtesy of the BBC

Owen Wingrave – Opera in two acts, Op.85 (April 1969 – August 1970, Britten aged 56)

Dedication Joan and Isador Caplan (Isador was solicitor and legal adviser to Britten and Pears, and his wife Joan
Text Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James
Language English
Duration 110′

Audio and Video clips

A link to the BBC TV production of Owen Wingrave, which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube:

Selected clips from the opera’s first recording, with the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten. The principal soloists are Benjamin Luxon (Owen Wingrave), John Shirley-Quirk (Spencer Coyle), Nigel Douglas (Lechmere), Sylvia Fisher (Miss Wingrave), Heather Harper (Mrs Coyle), Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs Julian), Janet Baker (Kate Julian) and Peter Pears (Sir Philip Wingrave, Narrator). With thanks to Decca.

Act One
1 Prelude

2 You’ve got your maps there? (Lechmere, Coyle, Owen)

3 At last it’s out (Miss Wingrave, Coyle, Owen)

4 Your sherry, Mrs. Coyle (Mrs Coyle, Lechmere, Coyle, Owen)

5 Oh, how unforeseen (Mrs Julian, Miss Wingrave, Kate, Owen)

6 Sirrah! How dare you! (Mrs Julian, Miss Wingrave, Kate, Sir Philip)

7 Coyle, I wish I had not come (Mrs Coyle, Lechmere, Coyle, Owen)

8 May God bless the Queen (ensemble)

Act Two
1 There was a boy, a Wingrave born (Narrator, Coyle, Owen)

2 I envy you, this fine old house (ensemble)

3 Paramore shall welcome woe! (ensemble)

4 And with his friend young Lechmere played (Mrs Coyle, Lechmere, Coyle, Owen)

5 Now you may save your scornful looks (Owen)

6 Ah, Owen, what shall I do? (Kate, Lechmere, Owen)

7 Is that you, Coyle? (Mr and Mrs Coyle)

8 Come in…It’s me, Lechmere (ensemble)

Background, Plot and Critical Reception

For his next opera Britten looked back to his work on The Turn of the Screw, and in particular its author Henry James. While working on the opera he had discovered the short story Owen Wingrave, later adapted as The Saloon, and felt it too would be suitable for operatic development. In the light of a commission he had just received from the BBC for a television opera – the first such work – he set about adapting James’s story for the small screen.

Since he was still concerned with touting the pacifist message, Britten also saw the opportunity for a sequel to the War Requiem, in the sense that this was potentially his biggest public platform since that work. Since the success of that piece the Vietnam conflict had raised to alarming levels, and there were several other points of concern around the world.

Once again Britten turned to Myfanwy Piper for a libretto, and she drew out the characters from James’s story, with a little help from The Saloon. In summary the story centres around Owen Wingrave, a young man training to become a soldier with instructor Spencer Coyle. In this training he is continuing a long line of service in the Wingrave family, his father having already been killed in action and his grandfather, the highly decorated Sir Philip, retired. The family all live at Paramore House, which has an unexplained history. There is a previous episode within the family where one of the Wingrave boys refused to fight, and was struck to death by his father in a room that retains a haunted presence.

Early in the story and during his military training Owen renounces war, making his declaration to his instructor Coyle. There follows an intense period of wrangling in Paramore, where Owen loses the support of the family and his fiancée, Kate. All turn against him, particularly Sir Philip, who disinherits his grandson. Kate labels Owen a coward, with the only possible redemption a show of courage by spending the night in the haunted room. Owen agrees to this and Kate locks him in – but the story ends in tragedy as he dies overnight.

Recording the work for television proved an onerous task, one that Britten and Pears had to complete in the wake of a serious fire at the Snape Maltings, which heavily compromised the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival. Yet the opera was finished in time for it to be recorded at the venue in November 1970, with its first broadcast on BBC2 on 16 May 1971.

In her book The Operas of Benjamin Britten, Elizabeth Seymour writes that Owen Wingrave ‘might be interpreted in the context of its relationship to A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘, but also suggests it ‘is almost a photographic negative of this liberal landscape: at Paramore, the forces of social oppression and moral convention as represented by the Wingrave clan dominate the setting.’ ‘In this world’, she writes, ‘devoid of all compassion or sympathy, the repressive spirit of the Borough or Loxford is magnified and its malignancy increased.’

Many Britten commentators identify the kinship that naturally extends from his other James adaptation, The Turn of the Screw – in a musical sense as well as a literal one. Britten employs a larger orchestra than in that opera, but it is still a relatively small scale symphony orchestra – and as before he writes with great economy, giving special prominence to the clarinets and oboes.

There is also recognition of the ‘father-son’ relationship in Owen Wingrave, continuing a pattern of relationships in Britten’s operas from Grimes and the apprentice through Claggart/Vere and Billy Budd, then Quint and Miles.

Anthony Burton, in his booklet notes for the Chandos recording conducted by Richard Hickox, believes there are strong parallels to be drawn with the plot and Britten’s own life. ‘In dramatising Owen’s arrival at Paramore, Britten must surely have recalled his own wartime return from the USA to Britain to face, not a disapproving family, but a Conscientious Objectors tribunal with the power to imprison him. And, as David Matthews has suggested in his biography of the composer, the ‘peace’ that Owen finds in his crucial aria may stand not just for pacifism ‘but for all the values Britten stood for, including the rightness of his own sexual choices’. Later, he concludes that ‘The questions probe the depths of what was undoubtedly a complex personality. Claire Seymour also notes this, telling of how in the finished opera Owen sings, ‘I am so tired’; she maintains ‘these are not the words of a young, energetic man but of one who has been aged by the struggle he has undergone, a man not unlike Britten himself at this stage in his life and career.’

Michael Oliver marvels at the techniques the composer uses early in the opera. ‘In the Prelude Britten brilliantly combines his ‘serial’ preoccupations with a perception of what the medium of television could offer. Piano, harp and percussion begin with a series of aggressively crashing chords: an image of the Wingraves as a family whose ancestral profession is war. The camera then focuses on a series of family portraits, each represented by a cadenza, usually for a solo instrument, each in turn adding a single note to a chord that is held throughout. By the time the portrait of Owen’s dead father is reached that chord contains eleven notes, but at Owen’s appearance the chord is not ‘completed’ but withdrawn entirely, the missing note becoming the starting point for a horn melody representing Owen himself. The whole brief scene is a musical and dramatic exposition of great originality and effectiveness: nearly all the opera’s melodic and harmonic material has by now been stated, as has the drama’s essential conflict.’

There is a downside, however – and John Bridcut’s verdict pulls no punches. ‘Most of the characters are cardboard caricatures, and both libretto and score preach at the audience – a turn-off that precludes any emotional engagement in the scenario.’ He goes further. ‘To be honest Owen is a prig and a weakling, who talks the talk about standing up to his family, but then, at the first flick of their fingers, meekly goes home to be bullied.’ And then, later on, ‘this facile libretto is a turkey – largely, one suspects, because of the interventions of the strongly pacifist composer with Points to Make.’ Even Michael Oliver becomes exasperated at the characterisation. ‘Owen’s weakness and his inexplicable attachment to the nagging, intolerant Kate are simply irritating.’

There are redeeming features for Bridcut however, in Britten’s use of a ballad singer to recount Wingrave family history, and in the orchestral interludes – which he wishes had been made into a concert suite. The last word goes to Claire Seymour. ‘Henry James had emphasised that Owen was a fighter: despite the musical and dramatic irresolution at the end of Owen Wingrave, the opera may have given Britten the courage to enter his own locked room, a step which he finally took in his last opera, Death in Venice.’

Thoughts

Owen Wingrave is probably the least known of all Britten’s operas, languishing behind even Paul Bunyan as a rarely heard or produced stage work. It is best experienced in its original television format to start with, but even then the curiously static plot has difficulty in sustaining the interest the whole way through, in spite of the quality of much of Britten’s music.

To me the plot feels lopsided. When Owen arrives at his renunciation of war it feels too early in the plot, with little background given to his character before the decision is made. After that the action itself feels rather static, though several clever effects on the part of the television crew ensure more dramatic tension is added to the plot in the lead up to the tragic events of Act Two.

The start of the opera is similar in impact to the Children’s Crusade, the thumping percussion setting the scene of war that recurs throughout the opera in many guises. In the first instance this cuts to more thoughtful bassoon and oboe solos, brilliantly described by Michael Oliver in the section above, which turn our attention to the portraits on the wall of the academy and give us a sense of the pressure young Owen finds himself under.

The real drama is that of seeing a family torn apart by their strict beliefs, handed down to them by Sir Philip Wingrave, who in the film is played by the distinguished and moustachioed Peter Pears. He is of a generation that refuses to accept anything other than total devotion to rules, and the news that his grandson Owen has renounced war is too much for him to take. The scene where he denounces and disinherits Owen is all the more powerful for being carried out off stage, while the others are busy wrangling out the front. In this there is a strong similarity to Billy Budd, as Elizabeth Seymour also notes, and the Captain’s delivery of the jury’s death sentence through 32 chords. Here it is the horn that takes on Owen’s character, but its delivery is scarcely less painful, for Sir Philip is delivering a similar verdict.

Yet Owen is nowhere near as strong a character as Budd – or at least if he is there is little evidence within this opera. This is despite his resolution that war is wrong and that he wants no part in it. His girlfriend Kate controls his every move, and Owen seems too subservient, though towards the end of the opera their final duet together is strangely touching. Owen now has fire in his belly, but she cannot bring herself to side with him again, and the telling line – ‘how dare you scold me, coward that you are’, is the beginning of the end, and is superbly scored by the composer. Miss Wingrave is immediately dislikeable, with her angular lines and propensity to shout – a feeling that can be levelled at several of the female characters unfortunately.

In spite of all these shortcomings there are some moments that make Owen Wingrave far from a lost cause. One particularly pertinent moment comes when Lechmere, Owen’s fellow pupil in class, asks him of his family, ‘Are they so very terrible?’ At this point the opening music returns in muted form, and the effect is chilling.

Shirkers are not tolerated here. As the family turns vehemently on Owen, the shrieked refrain ‘How dare you!’ is an indication of the strength of their feeling. There is something curiously empty about this in audio only, but in the TV version the expressions on the faces are key, disappearing one by one until only the highly disapproving face of Sir Philip is left.

As John Bridcut notes, the interludes are rather moving, and say just as much as the vocal passages do, if not more. The silvery textures of Interlude IV The Preparation of Dinner, reflect the family’s sorrow, depression and awkwardness. Then, as Owen glimpses apparitions of an old man and a boy in the house during his extended ‘Peace aria’, there is some characteristically visionary use of percussion, the music sparkling and dancing off the page. Meanwhile at Kate’s revelation and use of the word ‘coward’ the music recoils in shock, paving the way for Owen’s night in the awful, haunted room. Again the terrors of this are implied rather than explicitly seen, but Kate’s discovery of Owen’s body sends a chill through the listener.

In the end, however, Owen Wingrave is disappointing, and I tend to agree with John Bridcut about the relentless hammering of the pacifist message, which is done at the expense of more character development. Yet the opera is well worth experiencing and contains some fine music in places, which makes its unhappy ending all the more unsatisfactory.

Recordings used

DVD

Benjamin Luxon (Owen Wingrave), John Shirley-Quirk (Spencer Coyle), Sylvia Fisher (Miss Wingrave), Heather Harper (Mrs Coyle), Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julien), Peter Pears (Sir Philip Wingrave / Narrator), Janet Baker (Kate), Nigel Douglas (Lechmere), Wandsworth School Choir, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Gerald Finley (Owen Wingrave), Peter Savidge (Spencer Coyle), Josephine Barstow (Miss Wingrave), Anne Dawson (Mrs Coyle), Elizabeth Gale (Mrs Julien), Charlotte Hellekant (Kate), Martyn Hill (Sir Philip Wingrave), Hilton Marlton (Lechmere), Andrew Burden (narrator), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir / Kent Nagano (Arthaus Musik)

Audio

Benjamin Luxon (Owen Wingrave), John Shirley-Quirk (Spencer Coyle), Sylvia Fisher (Miss Wingrave), Heather Harper (Mrs Coyle), Jennifer Vyvyan (Mrs. Julien), Peter Pears (Sir Philip Wingrave / Narrator), Janet Baker (Kate), Nigel Douglas (Lechmere), Wandsworth School Choir, English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)

Peter Coleman-Wright (Owen Wingrave), Alan Opie (Spencer Coyle), Elizabeth Connell (Miss Wingrave), Janice Watson (Mrs Coyle), Sarah Fox (Mrs Julien), Pamela Helen Stephen (Kate), Robin Leggate (Sir Philip Wingrave / Narrator), James Gilchrist (Lechmere), City of London Sinfonia & Tiffin Boys Choir / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

There are two film versions of Owen Wingrave. The original, as shown by the BBC in 1971, is often dimly lit but conveys the claustrophobic setting of Paramore House, which eventually closes in on the main character. The disproving Wingrave family are appropriately haughty, and Benjamin Luxon is excellent as the vulnerable and ultimately lightweight main character. John Shirley-Quirk provides very solid support indeed as his teacher Coyle, while Heather Harper almost steals the show in a wonderful performance as his wife. Janet Baker, too, does a good job with Kate’s relatively limited material.

In an updated film of Wingrave made for Channel 4 in 2001, Gerald Finley is a very believable Owen in a film described by the Sunday Times as ‘one of the best opera films ever’. Certainly Kent Nagano directs a superb Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, while Peter Savidge (Coyle) is a stoic support and Josephine Barstow (Miss Wingrave) and Charlotte Hellekant (Kate) are relentlessly unforgiving.
There are also two recordings – the Britten one described above, with excellent sound in its remastered form, a digital Chandos version conducted by Richard Hickox that really brings out the best of Britten’s orchestration. The cast here also reach an extremely high standard, led by Peter Coleman-Wright as the downtrodden Owen and Pamela Helen Stephen as his unflinching girlfriend.

Spotify

The Britten original version can be heard via Decca’s older release of Britten conducts Britten, where it can be found on discs 3 and 4. Meanwhile Richard Hickox’s recording for Chandos can be heard in its entirety here

Also written in 1970: Shostakovich – Music for the film King Lear, Op.137

Next up: Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Owen Wingrave, Op.85

  1. Joe Bryce says:

    I do disagree with you about this. ‘Wingrave’ is and always has been one of my favourites. Some of the set pieces, especially the early scene in the park, are quite simply dazzling, and feel like the start of the final period. The recitative has more economy, colour, and fluency than in any of his operas (“Napoleon, for all his warlike glory, remember what he said;” “Owen my favourite?”, “I heard you speaking of your father!”, and a great deal more). The final scene is mostly a let down, I grant you, but “Come, turn your key!” is a great moment. Yes, the preachy text is tedious, and frankly I often wonder if he doubted his pacifism after he went round the camps with Menuhin. Britten was surely too deep a man to not have doubts. There is indeed an air of protesting too much. But this music is, mostly, glorious, and I can testify it works well in the theatre. It is the end of the late 60’s ‘drought’ and the start of the blaze of glory he went out on. BTW, the style reminds me of Shostakovich in the 14th Symphony, which of course Britten introduced to ‘The West’ around the time he was writing ‘Wingrave.’ I especially hear ‘Lorelei’ from the Shostakovich in the lythe muscularity of the orchestral writing. No, this is great Britten.

    • Thank you, some really interesting points here. The Shostakovich parallels are particularly strong, now you say, and I wonder why that hadn’t occurred to me before. Perhaps I need to give it a few more tries, your defence has certainly made me consider the work once more!

  2. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi, Op.86 | Good Morning Britten

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

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

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