Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 9 – “When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See”

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What is More Gentle Than a Wind in Summer?

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

For the first time in this whole work, the strings as a group take the obligato in unison while the formerly obligato instruments reverse roles and accompany.  This setting, however, does not use the Schubertian texture and text-setting that we have become accustomed to during this cycle.  Rather than representing something concrete (though imagined), as every other obligato instrument has up until now, the strings commence on a deeply emotional, constantly flowing chromatic line that fills in and even stands equal with the vocal line, more like the lieder settings of Schumann than Schubert.  The aesthetic is, in fact, more Mahlerian than anything else.

Mahler was a prominent influence on Britten; the composer declared his great admiration for him from the beginning.[1] Like Mahler, Britten arranges his works—even symphonies and operas—with extensive solo and small ensemble groupings to sound and feel like chamber music.  Though there are many differences between their styles and tonal pallets, Britten joins Mahler in using intense chromaticism to express great emotion.  More than any stylistic device though, to Britten Mahler’s music represented a passionate and profound dialogue with the human soul, a rigorous psychological and metaphysical investigation into the deeper truth of things.  Thus, it was more than simply the chamber-like orchestration of this final movement that made him feel such an affinity to Mahler that Britten dedicated this entire work to the late composer’s surviving widow.  Since the subject of this movement is metaphysical rather than physical, it is necessary for the first time for the obligato part to represent human pathos itself.  For the obligato, Britten chose the only instrument that could match the human voice in its sinuous depth, dynamic expressiveness and emotional intensity: the entire string section together.

Once again, the textural and tonal elements of this movement are fascinating, but they are merely encasement to the meaning revealed by the text.  To reveal his profound conclusion to this song cycle, Britten chose a sonnet of Shakespeare.[2] Such a choice was bold indeed.  As Peter Porter suggests, setting the immortal bard is always a risky proposition.  Because of the long history and affection built up around Shakespeare, “the awe felt for his poetry so often overwhelms the creation.”[3] But Britten is no ordinary composer and his great skill in understanding and setting the words of the greatest English poet ever succeeded, not just in this case but again two years later as he debuted his well-beloved opera Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In this sonnet, Shakespeare claims a series of difficult oxymorons: that he sees best when his eyes are closed, that the night is bright and the day dark, that the shadow of one person can light up other shadows.  Then the poet explains his riddle: he cannot see his beloved’s real form during the day and so must content himself with beholding his love’s image in dreams while asleep, the only happy time in his life.

Britten sets this poem of bitter-sweet pining with a tonal struggle of D flat and C.  Throughout this cycle the key of C has represented sleep: the reality of the immaterialism of dreams.  Up until now it has been mostly a comfort, a reminder that the scary things dreamed of did not really come to pass.  The melismatic “nurslings” phrase has been a symbol of the knowledge that distills upon the sleeping observer from the dreams through imagined experiences and exertion that in reality cost nothing to the sleeper.  The melisma’s ending on D flat was an indication of the passing of that knowledge from unconscious to conscious mind.  But with the entire shift of the ensemble to the key of D flat at the beginning of the last movement, Britten is indicating the return of the sleeping protagonist to the real world.  The Kraken has risen to die in the “latter fire,” and the “new sun-rise” has arrived to kill off all the dreams and awaken our observer.

But he does not “glance so brightly at the new sun-rise,” as Keats put it in the last movement.  Instead the voice struggles to try to recapture the tonality of C, doubled by the even more emotionally charged strings, straining against the D accompaniment of the winds.  (Ex. 18)

18. when most I wink 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 9 – When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See

Example 18: C/D tonal struggle at beginning of "When most I wink."

As they struggle around about the tonalities of C and D flat, the voice attempts to counterfeit reality at the phrase “And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed” with D flat major, the text indicating that the dark (unreal) brightness (happy image) the eyes receive brings brightness (happiness) to the darkness (loneliness).  But a pseudo-reality can never satisfy for long, and so the conflict continues with a return to the struggling C/D flat opening.  Next, when the text speaks of seeing the beloved in “the clear day,” the strings beat at A natural in desperate anticipation, but the winds sound several high-pitched, dissonant chords representing the resistance to such an occasion, and the great discomfort of the glaring light of day.  (Ex. 19)

19. To the clear day 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 9 – When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See

Example 19: Anxious “A” in strings, glaring chords in winds at "To the clear days..."

As the supplication to see the real form of the beloved in the daylight continues, the winds sound chromatically altered chords, and the strings passionately emote a meandering chromatic and frequently octave-displaced ascending line.  In a difficult, stuttering rhythm, the voice ascends in intensity and register, highlighting each chromatic step on the way up to the climactic return of the C/D flat motive on “thy fair imperfect shade / Through heavy sleep on sight-less eyes doth stay!” (Ex. 20)

20. How would I say 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 9 – When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See

Example 20: Chromatically altered chords in winds, passionate meandering line in strings.

After this clear zenith to the entire cycle, the D flat of the winds begin to die out and the strings begin a chromatically-altered descent to quietly settle on a repeating low F in a solo cello. (see Ex. 20)  A grand pause clears the air and then the voice enters by itself in D flat for the final couplet that summarizes not only this movement, but Britten’s Nocturne as a whole.    The strings return, muted, to play the “breathing” motive, this time in D flat  as well.  Though the protagonist is now defeatedly recognizing the reality of day and of his separation from his beloved, the strings still indicate a tinge of reverie: dreams are the opium that gets him by the “days [that] are night to see.”  Sure enough, with “And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me,” the voice and strings modulate to end up on our familiar “breathing” motive, completely identical to the form and harmony of the opening chord at the beginning of this work.  As the first violins fade away again into happy dreams, the middle strings and harp jab a final pianissimo D flat  third, the bitter-sweet reminder of the cruelty of reality.  (Ex. 21)

21. All days are nights 150x150 Benjamin Britten’s “Nocturne” Part 9 – When Most I Wink, Then Do My Eyes Best See

Example 21: The final return of the voice and strings to the “breathing” motive in C, and the victory of D over it.

Move on to Part 10: Britten’s Dreams

[1] Donald Mitchell, “What do we know about Britten now?” The Britten Companion, 27.

[2] Donald Mitchell claims that Britten had attempted to reveal this very same conclusion, with the same breathing motive and C/D flat tonal struggle in a song “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” that he had written fifteen years before for Serenade but decided instead to discard.  He hypothesizes that Britten had intended to use “Crimson Petal” as a dramatic final denouement to the earlier song cycle but realized that the rest of the songs did not support such a conclusion.  Mitchell claims that in Nocturne Britten finally returned to his intention and got it right.  “’Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’: Britten’s Other ‘Serenade’”, Tempo, No. 169 (Jun., 1989), 22-27.

[3] Peter Porter, “Composer and Poet,” Britten Companion, 282.

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.