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“Midnight’s Bell Goes Ting, Ting, Ting, Ting, Ting”
Movement 4 of Britten’s “Nocturne” for tenor and chamber orchestra
Out of the neutral atmosphere of the breathing emerges our new obligato, the French horn portraying the mid-night bell on the same long pitch we heard as the lowest of the primordial layers in the first phrase of the work. The libretto for this movement, excerpted from the Elizabethan play Blurt, Master Constable, is unique among all others in this cycle because it is the only one that steps out of the sleeping protagonist’s point of view and observes what is in reality going on around him in the night. For this reason the “breathing” of the sleeper can be heard throughout the movement, passed from section to section in the strings, to constantly remind us of his place in bed. In the placidity of midnight hour, the voice prosaically lists off the sounds heard in the night, waxing creative only four times to demonstrate to us the sounds that the bell, the nightingale, the mouse and the cats make. The horn, on the other hand, displays amazing virtuosity in onomatopoeically portraying each animal as they are mentioned. Many of these sounds—especially those of the bell, the cricket, and the cats—will reappear incorporated as other things in later movements, just as the sounds a sleeper hears will often find meaning in their dreams. (Ex. 9)
Though the predominance of the “breathing” motive leaves this movement in constant tonal flux, the voice and horn part are attached around A flat /G sharp. At the end, as the cats begin their “mew,” the voice quotes the beginning of the “nurslings” melisma, which the horn then continues in the same octave but breaks off. After two false starts, they then quote the entire line, passing it back and forth until the voice completes it to the ending D flat. (see Ex. 9) This recall of the magical “nurslings” motive serves as a transition, telling us that the normal, common things of the night are about to be transformed into something more meaningful.