Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 6 – “But That Night, When On My Bed I Lay”

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“But That Night, When On My Bed I Lay”

Movement 5 of Britten’s “Nocturne” for tenor and chamber orchestra



As happens in the first statement of the melisma, however, the offered D flat is rejected; the strings all drop a semi-tone to octave F sharps.  The mind of the sleeper has transformed the discordant crooning of midnight tomcats into a war scene.  (Who said Britten didn’t have a sense of humor?)  As the F sharps hold their tense dominant throughout much of the movement, the timpani takes over as obligato, transforming the staccato, off-beat mouse “peeps” into the anxious drums of impending war, tensely outlining a b/c sharp tonal struggle.  (Ex. 10a)

10a. timp 150x138 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 6 – But That Night, When On My Bed I Lay

Example 10a: Opening timpani line, "But that night..."

The vocal line seems unsure which of these tonalities it should adhere to, or if it should use another altogether, and the non-diatonic lines, angular intervals and chromaticisms add to the general feeling of evil and impending doom in this movement.   As the text talks of fear pressing into the protagonist, the strings begin to chromatically plane away from F# and the timpani becomes more active in its off-beat jabs and rolls.  Soon, the voice and strings break down into gasps as the timpani launches into a virtuosic barrage of chromatic 16th notes, amazingly requiring the timpanist to retune his drums up and down semi-tones “on the fly” in the middle of the phrases.  (Ex. 10b)

10b. timp2 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 6 – But That Night, When On My Bed I Lay

Example 10b: Virtuosic chromatic timpani writing.

In Britten language, this means that the tension is becoming unreal and inhumane as the war is about to arrive.

As the text begins to recite the “dim admonishments,” the strings and timpani suddenly jump into the diatonic “oom-pa-pa” of a British military march in A major.  At the next adage it slides up to B flat major, then C, then B.  At the last one, “the earthquake is not satisfied at once,” the strings go into a frenzied trill that seems to have originated from the cricket of the last movement.  These frenzied tremolos continue dividing into multiplying chromatic clusters with mounting tension in the diatonic-avoidant voice and the frantic timpani until the voice reaches its apex of unnaturalism and terror in a sprechstimme declaration “Sleep no more!”  Suddenly the war arrives with its crushing blows in inscrutable, off-beat D minor-ish/quartal chords. (Ex. 11)

10c. sleep no more 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 6 – But That Night, When On My Bed I Lay

Example 12: “Haunted” chromatic English horn line, “heartbeat” strings, tonally “ignorant” voice in “She sleeps on soft, last breaths.”

Move on to Part 7: Movement 6, “She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths.

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.