Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 10 – Britten’s Dreams

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Britten’s Dreams

In creating his definitive piece on the world of sleeping, Britten (though admittedly cryptically) shares with us a number of his own dreams: dreams of adventure on the high seas, dreams of strange and erotic attractions, dreams of terror at the threat of violence, dreams of macabre hauntings, and dreams of happy summer afternoons.  The dream that he shares in the final Shakespeare sonnet, however, is the most cryptic of them all.  Many have claimed that it is merely another declaration of Britten’s love to his lifetime partner Peter Pears, saying that the message is that “the reality offered by a loved one[...]is in fact more real than the nocturnal visions of the ‘real’ world, whether its beauties or  its nightmares.”[1] Mellers found a vague primal and universal truth in this setting, claiming Nocturne “sees dreams as the source of the deepest reality known to us.[...] It is no longer merely the human beloved we are seeking in the blackness of the night; it is also the Beloved, the wellspring of life that mysteriously renews the human spirit.” (181)[2] A universal struggle of humanity would seem to align well with a Mahlerian texture.  However, it does not match well with either Shakespeare’s text or Britten’s setting of it.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us much insight to understanding the enigmatic phrase “In dreams they look on thee, / And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.”  The dictionary actually uses this very phrase as an example of the definition of “darkly” as “in the dark; in secrecy, secretly,” also including the denotation “with obscure vision; dimly, blindly.”[3] The same dictionary also gives as definitions of “Bright”: “lit up with happiness, gladness, or hope.[...], encouraging,” or “of persons: ‘Resplendent with charms’ (J.); beautiful, fair.”[4] Stringing together these definitions of the time of Shakespeare, we can render “In dreams [my eyes] behold you [my beloved], and in secret rejoicings find hope in your unreal/imagined beauty.”  Shakespeare later affirms “in dead night thy fair, imperfect shade / Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!” the phrase Britten chose for the central climax of the entire song cycle.  “Imperfect” of course in Shakespeare’s time usually meant “Wanting some part [...] necessary to the full form or development; not fully formed, [...] deficient.  Wanting some quality or attribute necessary to [...] normal condition, or ideal character; [...] not all that it should be; defective, faulty.”[5] Britten and Shakespeare are describing a person with an ideal of love that they cannot attain, that due to the restrictions of reality they can only claim in secret in a fundamentally faulted way.

Britten is describing himself.  It is known that he frequently struggled in his life with homoerotic feelings that led him through a series of secret unsuccessful amorous encounters[6] and his moral struggles with his pederastic feelings can be seen in some of his other works such as Peter Grimes.  Such socially unacceptable desires could only be completely addressed (much less fulfilled) in Britten’s dreams and imagination.

Yet, it is the poet’s (and the composer’s) blessing and curse to feel and to dream, to discover and recreate in their own medium “the aërial kisses / Of shapes that haunt thought’s wildernesses.”  In poetry Britten found a voice for the deep agonies and ecstasies of his soul.  In setting poetry he personalized that voice, enhancing the powerful subtlety of literary expression with the further dimensions of musical experience—melodic shape, harmony, rhythm, texture, counterpoint, tonality, register, and so forth; and the motivic use of these elements to carry meaning across songs, works, composers and genres.

By his “adept” use of the medium of the song cycle, Britten recreates for us in Nocturne the “healing” and the “disturbing” aspects of sleep for him. Through his investigation we have discovered both ugly and beautiful, and we have glimpsed at one of Britten’s most profound emotional struggles.  But, as the patron saint of suffering artists knew well, the rest of the world pauses in wonder and admiration at the beauty of such agony:

I beheld on earth angelic grace,
And celestial beauty unmatched in this world,
Such as to rejoice and pain my memories,
Which are so clouded with dreams, shadows, mists.

And I beheld tears in those two bright eyes,
That so many times have put the sun to shame,
And heard, through sighs, words spoken
That moved the mountains and stopped the rivers.

Love, wisdom, excellence, pity and grief
Made in weeping a sweeter concert
Than any other ever heard on earth.

And heaven on that harmony was so intent
That not a leaf upon the bough was seen to stir,
Such sweetness had filled the air and the winds.[7]

Move on to Part 11: Appendix

[1] Donald Mitchell, “’Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’: Britten’s Other ‘Serenade,’” 26.

[2] Wilfrid Mellers, “The Truth of the Dream,” The Britten Companion, 181-191.

[3] “Darkly, adv,” Oxford English Dictionary Online, John Simpson, chief ed, (Oxford UP, 2007), <>.

[4] “Bright, a. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[5] “Imperfect, a. (n.),” Oxford English Dictionary Online.

[6] Cf. Philip Brett, “Britten, Benjamin,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed Apr. 17, 2007), <>, Humphrey Carpender, Benjamin Britten: A Biography.  (New York: Scribner, 1992).

[7] Petrarch, Sonnet 156: “I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi,” translation mine.

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.