Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 1 – Introduction

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In February 1969, Benjamin Britten granted a rare interview to musicologist Donald Mitchell.  Though the intended focus of discussion was one of his new opera projects, the conversation naturally drifted to one of Britten’s favorite compositional subjects.

DM:  Ben, I know dreams, sleep, night have clearly meant a great deal to you as a creator. “Night and Silence, these are two of the things that I cherish most.” That’s a paraphrase of yours I’ve always remembered.

BB:  [...]But night and dreams—I have had a strange fascination by that world since a very early age, [...] Someone told me,—I don’t remember whom—that [...sleep] gives a chance for your subconscious to work when our conscious mind is happily asleep.[...]But I do treasure that moment and that’s why I think I get so disturbed and distressed if I don’t sleep, I find that I wake up in the morning unprepared for my next day’s work.

DM:  Of course, in a work like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, one does there—poetically—experience the healing power of sleep, because after the dream-world of the wood, and the imposed sleep of the spells, everything does come out right in the end; and this is an image perhaps of what you’ve just been saying about the therapeutic effect of a good night’s sleep.  At the same time it is true—isn’t it?—that night does also have a more disturbing aspect for you?

BB:  Yes. It can release many things which one thinks had better not be released; and one can have dreams which one cannot remember even, I find, in the morning, which do colour your next day very darkly.  And it’s always very puzzling to me that I can’t remember something which has had such a big emotional effect on the next day, on the next days even.  Similarly, of course, it can have a very blessed effect on your next day.[1]

With its evident importance in his life, it is not surprising that Britten has written a variety of works surrounding the subjects of the nighttime and sleep.  In 1943 Britten wrote a song cycle for tenor, French horn and string orchestra called Serenade (Op. 31) . A setting of six poems from various British poets, the cycle begins in the quiet of the evening and ends with the vocalist “falling asleep,” leaving the horn to finish the piece with an off-stage solo.  The magical opening chords of the penultimate movement, Keats’ sleep-inducing “Sonnet” would sixteen years later find its way (though apparently unintentionally by the composer) into Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Op.64), again to evoke the magical properties of sleep.[2]

Just previous to that opera, however, Britten devoted another entire song cycle to the subject of sleep and dreams.   Nocturne (Op. 60) begins where the “Sonnet” of Serenade left off,[3] with the protagonist asleep in bed and ready to experience, for good or bad, the effects of a night’s sleep.  As in Serenade, Britten chose texts from a wide variety of English eras, from Shakespeare and Middleton in Elizabethan England to the WWI soldier Wilfred Owen, and set them for tenor, strings and solo obligato[4] instruments—in this case seven different obbligati: one (or in one case two) for six of the eight movements.  Unlike the earlier work, however, all but the last of these texts are excerpted from larger poems, essays, or even dramas, and the setting is continuous with each of its eight “movements” transitioning directly into the next.

In this article, we will examine and discuss Britten’s Nocturne from the view of a performance of the work.    We will investigate his use of key, tonality, chromaticism, rhythm, instrumentation and accompaniment figuration, and reveal how they are used to symbolize and represent the subject matter and setting of each poetry excerpt.  We will also identify Britten’s use of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic motives, and discuss the effects of the cross-movement connections they create.  With this data, we will compare Britten’s text setting in Nocturne with other composers of the song cycle tradition.  Finally, we will seek to identify the meaning Britten’s settings have given to these poems and ultimately what this work says about him.

Move on to Part 2: Movement 1, “On a Poet’s Lips I Slept.”

[1] Benjamin Britten, “Mapreading,” interview with Donald Mitchell, the Britten Companion, (Cambridge UP, 1984), 91-2.

[2] Eric Roseberry, “A Note on the Four Chords in Act II of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’” Tempo, New Series, 66/67, Britten’s 50th Birthday, (Autumn – Winter, 1963), 36-37.

[3] Britten, “Mapreading,” 92.

[4] Sic. Britten’s preference for this spelling will be honored throughout this article.

About Gregory Blankenbehler

With over 25 years of experience training, performing and teaching music, Gregory Blankenbehler has performed in Italy, England and France and completed a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. From his focused studies into comparative vocal pedagogy and private teaching experience, he has become an expert on teaching effective vocal technique to singers of all ages and specializes in rehabilitating "troubled" voices and helping them to reach their full potential. Gregory maintains a large studio of voice and piano students in the Sacramento, California area where he also performs regularly and teaches community music classes for adults and children.