Listening to Britten – Death in Venice, Op.88

[title not known] 1972 by John Piper 1903-1992
[title not known], from Death In Venice (1972) by John Piper. (c) The Piper Estate. Image used courtesy of the Tate Gallery.

Death in Venice – Opera in two acts, Op.88 (December 1971 – March 1973, Britten aged 59)

Dedication To Peter
Text Myfanwy Piper, after the novella by Thomas Mann
Language English
Duration 140′

Audio and Video clips

A link to the Tony Palmer film of Death in Venice, filmed on location:

Selected clips from the opera’s first recording, with the English Opera Group Chorus and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Steuart Bedford. The principal soloists are Peter Pears (Gustave von Aschenbach), John Shirley-Quirk (Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus), and James Bowman (Voice of Apollo). With thanks to Decca.

My mind beats on (Aschenbach)

Who’s that? A foreigner, a traveller no doubt (Aschenbach, traveller)

Hey there, hey there, you! (Aschenbach, Elderly Fop)

Serenissima…Low-lying clouds, unending grey (Aschenbach, Elderly Fop)

Overture: Venice (orchestra)

Ah, Serenissima! (Aschenbach, Old Gondolier)

Mysterious gondola (Aschenbach)

We are delighted to greet the signore (Aschenbach, Hotel Manager)

Was I wrong to come? (Aschenbach)

Children’s games: Adziu, Adziu (Aschenbach)

Here will I stay, here dedicate my days (Aschenbach, chorus)

First, the race! (chorus)

The boy, Tadzio, shall inspire me (Aschenbach)

So, it has come to this (Aschenbach)

Careful search now leads me to them (Aschenbach)

This way for the players, Signori (Hotel porter, guests)

One moment, if you please (Hotel clerk, guests)

So it is true (Aschenbach)

Receive the stranger god (Voice of Dionysus, Voice of Apollo)

The empty beach: Do what you will with me (Aschenbach, Hotel Barber)

Hurrah for the Piazza (Aschenbach)

Chaos, chaos and sickness (Aschenbach)

The wind still blows from the land (Hotel Manager, Aschenbach)

Interlude: Ah, no! (Aschenbach)

Background, Plot and Critical Reception

Death in Venice is everything that Peter and I have stood for.’

This unforgettable quote from Britten, made in an aside to Donald Mitchell, confirms the stature of his final opera, which occupied him through a time of ailing health, from 1971 until 1973.

The composer had been suffering from aortic valve trouble for some time, his health deteriorating markedly, and was due for an operation. However with the cautious approval of his doctors he ensured Death in Venice was completed, at least in short score form, before the surgery took place. ‘I remember that I wanted passionately to finish this piece before anything happened’, wrote Britten, ‘for one thing it is probably Peter’s last major operatic part; for another it was an opera I had been thinking about for a very long time, and it had already been postponed once. I had to keep going, and then, when I had finished, put myself into the doctors’ hands.’

The opera is based on the Thomas Mann novella of the same name. In it the highly respected author, Gustave von Aschenbach, travels to Venice with his family. While in the city he encounters a twelve-year old boy of almost otherworldly beauty, also on holiday and becomes mesmerised by him. A series of encounters with other Venetian folk, some of them in apparition form, prey on his state of mind, while his obsession with the boy and a cholera epidemic in the city drive him to insanity. The tale is an elaborate retelling of a true sequence of events for Mann himself, who fell under the spell of a Polish boy while on holiday in Venice in 1911.

Britten’s interpretation is necessarily different in order to construct a two act opera, and perhaps even to incorporate his own autobiographical references, for it was in Venice and rehearsals for The Turn of the Screw that he became obsessed with David Hemmings, playing Miles. The opera was nonetheless written with the assistance of the Mann’s son Golo.

At around the same time a film based on the novella was released, starring Dirk Bogarde and making a greater play on the influence of Mahler’s death on the genesis of the story. The Adagietto from the composer’s Symphony no.5 was used at the moment of death, and experienced a high profile as a result. Britten was advised – and chose – not to see it, thereby avoiding any chance of plagiarism.

For the libretto Britten renewed his successful partnership with Myfanwy Piper, broaching the subject during the recording of Owen Wingrave. Initially she felt it impossible to construct a meaningful text for such a plot, but she and Britten did so with the assistance of Pears, who would play Aschenbach. He wanted regular input particularly into the recitative sections, but this became rather taxing for Piper, asked to change many of her original thoughts but fighting to keep many of them in.

Britten played through the short score of the opera to John and Myfanwy Piper and Colin Graham on New Year’s Eve 1972. While writing the orchestral parts he was assisted by Rosamund Strode and Colin Matthews, who commented that ‘there is a very dark side to the work that I still can’t claim to understand’. On 30 March 1973 Britten, his work completed, checked in for surgery.

The thoughts of Michael Oliver, in his very fine biography of the composer, sum up a succinct reaction to the opera. ‘Britten depicts Aschenbach’s feverish and hopeless pursuit of the boy Tadzio with an ingenuity of motivic cross-reference that is a brilliant analogue of obsession’.

He also praises Britten’s evocation of the place. ‘For all the centrality of Aschenbach’s obsession, the details of Death in Venice are no less beautifully painted. The sounds, even the smell of Venice, the lapping of water, the omnipresent bells, the acoustic of St Mark’s, the cries of gondoliers and street vendors, Aschenbach’s inner turmoil before his avowal of ‘I love you’ have a graphic quality that is surely, including the last of these, ‘taken from life’.’ In summation, he states, ‘It is an almost painfully personal opera, given added poignancy by the taxing demands it made of, and the boundless confidence it expressed in Peter Pears.’

One of the most perceptive critiques of the work came from Edward Greenfield, writing in the Guardian on 18 June 1973. ‘Benjamin Britten, consistently perverse in his choice of opera subjects, has once again proved the impossible. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a compressed and intense story, an artist’s inner monologue, lacking conversation, lacking plot, has against all the odds become a great opera. Britten has turned it into one of the richest and deepest of operatic character-studies.’

Thoughts

As the plot plays out in Death in Venice, there is an incredibly strong sense of inevitability, as if Britten has been heading towards this moment for a very long time in his career, possibly his entire life. It would certainly explain why he was so adamant the work had to be finished before he went in for heart surgery.

On paper, as Edward Greenfield says, it ought not to work, being essentially an extended monologue for tenor and orchestra with occasional input from other singers and the chorus. Yet the opera unfolds with a fluency that is pronounced, even for Britten, and these characters dip in and out of the story with parts that only add to the ever-deepening profile and decline of the author Aschenbach. For this opera does not feel to me like a celebration of the attraction felt towards the boy Tadzio, for that is a destructive force. If it celebrates anything it is the boy’s innocence which is – thankfully – unreachable for the author. This does however become the catalyst for some very troubling and unnerving music, walking a tightrope between life and death.

There is a strong sense of impending dread right from the very beginning. Even before Aschenbach arrives in Venice the seeds of doubt are sown, evident from the very moment he meets a mysterious traveller in the churchyard in Munich. The instrumental background is oppressive and discomforting, with hallucinatory aspects to the scoring that begin an out of body musical experience.

On the boat to Venice there is a little light relief, as the boisterous singing on board offers brief and scattered reminders of the sailors in Billy Budd. There are brighter moments in the music as the climate warms, but the nervous tension continues to build beneath the surface, aided by a sinister encounter with a faceless gondolier, another unsettling apparition revealed to the author. For these character visions to be played by one singer is something of a masterstroke, and in the first recording John Shirley-Quirk, for whom the parts were written, is especially good at inhabiting his various roles of hotel barber, gondolier, traveller, elderly fop, band leader and hotel manager.

All disturb Aschenbach’s state of mind, and as the opera progresses these encounters become ever more distorted and surreal, culminating in the second encounter with the hotel barber, who resolves to make Aschenbach beautiful with face painting and lipstick. Even the hotel manager, initially serene and ready to acquiesce to all his guest’s requests, turns out to be the ‘keeper of the death’. ‘Who comes and goes is my affair’, he reveals.

As the story arrives in Venice there is a brief and wonderful sojourn as we take in the Mediterranean warmth, beautifully portrayed in sea music that is far balmier than that assigned to the North Sea in Peter Grimes. However this is a front, the Italian city very quickly shown to be hiding something a whole more sinister, as Aschenbach’s growing obsession with Tadzio plays out and the city experiences the full-scale outbreak of cholera.

The encounters with the boy – none of them spoken – ensure the autobiographical strains of the opera, the parallels to Britten’s own life, become almost choking, especially when Aschenbach lapses into recitative with the piano, as he is often prone to do. He is a constant and sometimes overwhelming presence in the story, ensuring the listener is tested to the limit as his descent towards madness and fever gathers pace.

The initial enchantment of the first encounter with the boy is set to music born of The Prince of The Pagodas, and the air is thick with tension and humidity when Tadzio is playing with his fellow-children. When the extended Games of Apollo take place the chorus assume a dreamlike state, and though this stage of the opera is rather long it is necessary, as Michael Oliver points out, to turn the course of the story and heighten the otherworldly, feverish atmosphere.

Britten’s evocation of Venice in the music is uncanny and rather brilliant. Sometimes it feels as if the music is reflecting off the walls of the buildings, suddenly turning down a side street, or muffled by the waters as it hits a faster current. After a while these subtle effects add to the destabilisation of the story, the listener becoming lost in the complex network of the city, drawn to the heart of the maze. The woodwind express their disquiet, with chattering bassoons, oboes and clarinet disrupting the peace, raucous and unfocused.

The deterioration becomes ever more earnest when Aschenbach tries to leave and is hindered because of a mix-up with his luggage. He is easily persuaded that staying is the better option – Tadzio does this without words of course – and there is a brief elation at this, but ultimately this is where the rot really sets in, and the downward spiral towards loss of sanity accelerates with every scene. Even when the hotel manager is apologising for the mix-up the ominous strokes of the bass strings tell us it would have been better for him to leave.

The barber it is who first mentions the impending sickness of the cholera outbreak, before we descend still further into the madness of the outdoor scene with the band, which is extremely disorientating and rather Lynchian in its effect, even more so in Tony Palmer’s celebrated film of the opera.

As the final scene begins there is a brief but unforgettable parallel to Shostakovich’s Symphony no.15, found principally through the use of percussion. The two pieces, written almost at the same time and both autobiographical, share much between them as they hover between life and death.

Death in Venice is many things. Enchantment, depression and torment are just some of the emotions I went through whilst listening to it, so for Britten to write it must have been a superhuman effort. It is an undoubted masterpiece, but a deeply troubling one, that for the moment sits beyond my understanding.

Recordings used

DVD

Tony Palmer’s film of Death in Venice:

Robert Gard (Aschenbach), John Shirley-Quirk (Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus), James Bowman (Apollo), English Opera Group Chorus and Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Tony Palmer films)

Audio

Peter Pears (Aschenbach), John Shirley-Quirk (Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus), James Bowman (Voice of Apollo),
English Opera Group Chorus, English Chamber Orchestra / Steuart Bedford (Decca)

Philip Langridge (Aschenbach), Alan Opie (Traveller / Elderly Fop / Old Gondolier / Hotel Manager / Hotel Barber / Leader of the Players / Voice of Dionysus), Michael Chance (Voice of Apollo), BBC Singers, City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Chandos)

Steuart Bedford conducted the first recording of Death in Venice, with Britten still recovering from his heart operation, and oversees a deeply affecting encounter between Aschenbach, the city and Tadzio. It is undoubtedly one of Peter Pears’ finest moments on record, sustaining an often unbearable tension as Aschenbach. John Shirley-Quirk gives a wide range of characterisations to the apparitions that assail the author, while the English Chamber Orchestra play with a beautiful lyricism, often finding themselves in a dream-like state.

Philip Langridge is quite simply superb in Richard Hickox’s version for Chandos – quite different from the approach of Pears but a complementary and slightly more youthful approach to the part of Aschenbach. This is a focussed and brightly lit version that benefits from digital sound, placing its events very realistically in the sonic picture.

Spotify

The first recording, conducted by Steuart Bedford with Peter Pears and John Shirley-Quirk in the major roles, can be heard here. Meanwhile Richard Hickox’s recording for Chandos, with Philip Langridge and Alan Opie the main protagonists, can be heard in its entirety here

Also written in 1973: Shostakovich – String Quartet no.14, Op.142

Next up: Death in Venice: Suite

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5 Responses to Listening to Britten – Death in Venice, Op.88

  1. joe bryce says:

    Shostakovich again. In the late 60’s’and early 70’s’these two most loved of the last century’s’composers seemed almost to walk hand in hand into death’s’dissolving gloom (to quote ‘Phaedra’ which we are yet to get to, and which Shostakovich never heard, at least not in this life). Can I just mention that ‘Fine strawberries for sale’ is a direct and blatant lift from ‘Tre Lilye’ in Shostakovich # 14; so blatant that we must be intended to see it, and draw a meaning that I confess I do not see. At this time composers (Tippett, Berio, Simpson, Arnold) were working with quotations. It must mean something.

    This is, of course, a very very great work, as well as a disturbing one. For myself I think there is nothing in the whole of music like the Act 2 Prelude. I have listened to that on repeat probably a thousand times, and plan to have it playing when I die.

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