Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 7 – “She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths”

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“She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths”

Movement 6 of Britten’s “Nocturne” for tenor and chamber orchestra

The violent blows of war soon die down to soft, regular footsteps or heartbeats that mark gloomily the pulse of the measure.  In this way, the inhumane and now even inhuman quartal chords continue throughout this movement with very little change as an ostinato figure, representing the desolation left after the fighting.  The extremely chromatic English horn obligato enters with sharp jagged intervals, representing the most unnatural of things, the undead haunting of the fallen soldiers.  (Ex. 12)

12. she sleeps on soft last breaths 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 7 – She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths

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

The text is excerpted from a poem by Wilfred Owens, near contemporary of Britten (born just 20 years earlier) and a dramatic pacifist, as was Britten.  Britten would set much more of Owen’s poetry five years later along with the dramatic words of the traditional requiem mass, but it has been said of this setting it is “more chilling than anything in Britten’s later treatment of Owen in the War Requiem.”[1]

Over these two layers of intensely chromatic tonality, the voice enters in a calm D major, as if representing the ignorant public at home that cannot (or will not) realize the trauma and desolation their war has caused to those who were actually involved.  (see Ex. 12) But the voice cannot completely maintain its calm tonality during the traumatic lines “nor what red mouths were torn to make their blooms” (Ex. 13)

13. nor what red mouths 150x94 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 7 – She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths

Figure 13: Chromatic voice line "Nor what red mouths…”

or “quiet their blood lies in her crimson rooms.”  Though the voice defiantly mimics and challenges the footstep ostinato with “and she is not afraid of their footfall,” the pizzicato strings steadily continue their ghostly march.   (Ex. 14)

14. she is not afraid 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 7 – She Sleeps on Soft, Last Breaths

Example 14: Defiant voice in "she is not afraid..."

Throughout the movement, the English horn torments the voice about, interjecting its “haunting” lines into each and every slightest break of the voice. (see Ex. 12 and 14) It manages to chase the voice into the keys of B and C sharp major in the last two phrases, and finally into silence down at the very bottom of the tenor’s range, as the horn then continues to rise up to the very top of its range and fade into the night air.

With this sequence of scenes from the “lovely boy” to the “ghosts” or war, Britten attempts to once again demonstrate the loss of innocence that occurs in every life through the evils of humanity and the great desolation that it creates, from battlefields to the single human soul.  This representation of one of Britten’s own nightmares certainly qualifies as one of the dark things dreams sometimes release which, as he mentioned earlier, one feels would have been better not released.[2] Still, as Britten reinstates the “breathing” motive together with the “mid-night bells” in an eight measure interlude, he reminds us that though such a bad dream may “colour your next day very darkly [and have...] a big emotional effect on the next day, on the next days even,” none of it was real.  No real consequences need be suffered, and the event in this case is for the best, since it allows the sleeper to gain the knowledge of experience without paying the price: achieving the alchemist’s goal of creating gold from lesser things without having to pay the typical exorbitant going rate for such precious metals.

Move on to Part 8: Movement 7, “What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

[1] Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten, revised ed., (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996), 374.

[2] Benjamin Britten, “Mapreading,” interview with Donald Mitchell, the Britten Companion, 92.

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.