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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)
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)
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)