Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 4 – “Encinctured with a Twine of Leaves”

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“Encinctured with a Twine of Leaves”

Movement 3 of Britten’s “Nocturne” for tenor and chamber orchestra

This dramatic sensitivity to setting text takes quite a different tack in the next movement.  After a brief interlude of orchestral “breathing” to remind us that the sleeper is still safe in bed, the harp takes over as obligato and transports us into a sensual wonderland of vines, fruits and moonlight with a “lovely” little boy.  While the harp outlines arpeggios of rustic vines, the strings create an ephemeral moonlit scene of glassy artificial harmonics, with occasional plucked fruits.  Rather than setting the text syllabically, as in the last movement, Britten gives certain speech-accented syllables melismas that increasingly stretch out until the voice hardly breaks at all.  The movement is set in a slow three, but it does not take long for the liquid harp and elided vocal phrases to displace and eventually wash over any feel of barlines.  The harmony and melody are again very diatonic in steps and arpeggios throughout the voice and harp, though often tinged with a raised 4th and incongruent repetitive phrasing that make this scene seem more than a little too magical to be real.  (Ex.  8 )

8.encintured 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 4 – Encinctured with a Twine of Leaves

Example 8: Elided, repetitive phrasing and raised 4th scale degree in "Encintured..."

At two points in this movement the spell seems to be broken as the tenor declares a hidden uneasiness:  “But who that beauteous Boy beguil’d?” and again at the very end “Has he no friend, no loving mother near?”  In both cases the violas hold out our “breathing” chord (holding their breaths?), the intervals altered so that the chord is beyond concrete tonal definition, eliciting a feeling of uneasiness or even guilt.  After the first time, the accompaniment rocks back into the melismatic spell, continuing as if nothing happened.  At the second interjection, however, the “uneasy” held chord fades away into the “breathing” motive and we are again placed at the beginning texture of the sleeper in bed.

This movement is set in a slightly Lydian A major, a tonality Britten has used in many of his pieces to represent childhood innocence, love and beauty.[1] In fact, most of Britten’s dramatic works deal in some way or another with these subjects: the vulnerability of innocence and the effects of experience.  This fixation has been explained by many researchers and biographers with the claim that Britten always felt himself a vulnerable child at heart, having had several traumatic experiences in his youth.[2] In light of Britten’s earlier comments about the experience that one can gain through sleep—good or bad—we can recognize that he is now setting us up to go with our sleeping protagonist on a quick journey from innocence into experience.  The dissonant declaimed worries betray that our sleeping observer senses that there is some dread approaching our innocent and naïve little boy plucking fruits in paradise, just as another innocent individual came to learn some hard experience with another fruit in another paradise.

There is also another very dream-related way to interpret this scene.  Perhaps because he always emotionally remained a child, it is well-documented that Britten experienced pederastic feelings throughout his life.[3] Though he reportedly never acted upon them, his attraction to young and adolescent boys is barely concealed in his Les Illuminations and Peter Grimes.  In his last opera, Death in Venice, Britten finally took on a subject that directly addressed this obsession.  Knowing this strong proclivity of Britten’s gives such phrases in this poem as “Encinctured with a twine of leaves, / That leafy twine his only dress! / A lovely Boy was plucking fruits…” a whole new meaning.  The description of this dream-sequence as “sensual” can in Britten’s case safely be upgraded to “erotic,” and the accompanying feelings of uneasiness and guilt expressed in Britten’s setting surely reveal in part the complex pathos he experienced in envisioning this scene.

Move on to Part 5: Movement 4, “Midnight’s Bell Goes Ting, Ting, Ting, Ting, Ting.”

[1] Mellers, “The Truth of the Dream,”183.

[2] Britten had a difficult time with the bullying and strict schoolmasters at boarding school, and he alleged at one time sexual abuse from a schoolmaster.  It is also said that he at one time claimed that his father was a pederast.  Cf. Philip Brett, “Britten, Benjamin,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed Apr. 17, 2007), <>.

[3] Cf. John Bridcut, Britten’s Children, (London: Faber and Faber), 2006.

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.