Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 8 – “What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?”

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What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

Movement 7 of Britten’s “Nocturne” for tenor and chamber orchestra

After the destruction of the previous movement has been forgotten, the primordial striation of sleep is burst aside by a buzzing bee, played by a double-tonguing flute in D major in a compound duple meter.  The voice soon enters with a pleasant leaping melody in a different, over-laid simple duple meter.  (Ex. 15)

15. what is more gentle 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 8 – What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

Example 15: Mixed meter of the voice and flute, “What is more gentle...”.

Soon the clarinet enters and matches the acrobatics of the flute. They take turns portraying the sublime wonders of nature (including the earlier nightingales!), human beauty, and “high romance” that Keat’s text lauds.  But the compound energy of the arpeggiating obbligati and joyous leaps of the voice in D suddenly melt into thin air at the textual mention sleep, backed up by the strings in a sudden grand C major chord.  The D major figurations of the flute and clarinet return several times again only to consistently give way to the strings’ C that begins to develop into our familiar sleeping motive. (Ex  16)

16. C appearance 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 8 – What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

Example 16: The "take over" of C and the "breathing" motive on "sleep".

This could be a musical support to the idea Keats articulates in the text: that of all the beauties and pleasures of the world, sleep makes them all better.  As Britten said earlier, there is a “therapeutic effect of a good night’s sleep[;...] it can have a very blessed effect on your next day.”[1] But by the sudden tonal “take-over” of D to C, it seems that Britten is pointing out the fleetingness of the whole happy scene.  As a bright spotlight shown onto a dark movie screen will cause the projected images there to disappear, so happy dreams vanish at the moment of waking and the sleeper is thrust into reality.

Britten sets the ending phrase of this poetic excerpt, “when the morning blesses / Thee for enlivening all the cheerful eyes / That glance so brightly at the new sun-rise,” to another almost exact restatement of the familiar “nurslings” motive at the end of the first movement, complete with the strings starting full and then fading away in a wide-spaced statement of the “breathing” motif.  This time, however, as the melisma hits the final Db it is resounded by the bassoon and harp.  With that tonality the sun begins to rise, and as the appearance of light dispels all darkness, every instrument that played obligato before now joins in building a clear D flat chord, melting away the ambiguity of the “breathing” motive.  (Ex 17)

17. D sunrise 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 8 – What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

Example 17: At the end of “What is more gentle...,” the final “breathing” take-over, the “nurslings” melisma,

Move on to Part 9: Movement 8, “When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See.

[1] 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.