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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Standoff (I)
Richard Taruskin

ex. 5-8a Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Prologue, “When women gossip…”


ex. 5-8b Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Grimes's replique in Act I, scene 1

None of this means that Peter Grimes was actually envisioned or presented by Britten and Pears as homosexual, or that he should be played that way. The plight depicted is not that of sexual “inversion” as such but rather its social consequences, which do not differ in the case of homosexuals from those affecting other persecuted minorities. And yet there are other aspects of the opera that indirectly broach matters associated with, or tangential to, the theme of homosexuality, matters that recur in later works of Britten as well. Unlike Chaikovsky or Copland, or any other previous composer known or thought to be homosexual, Britten did consciously (and perhaps also unconsciously) “thematize” the topic repeatedly. That, too, is an aspect of modernity, and a particularly compelling one that transcends the narrowly stylistic issues to which discussions of musical modernity are often confined.

In Peter Grimes, the title character's insistence on having boy apprentices, in conjunction with the evidence of his possible sadism toward them, broaches the issue of pederasty (man-boy love) and the consequent “corruption of innocence” that was long a recognized but unspoken concern in British society, where the education of young boys so often took place in private, single-sex boarding schools. Britten himself attended such a school; his recent biographers have recorded the testimony of friends to whom he allegedly confided that he had been raped by a prep-school master. Incidents like this do not “explain” homosexuality; but they might predispose an artist to thematize man-boy attraction, as Britten did in Death in Venice, or violence toward children (as in The Turn of the Screw), or vengeful male treatment of overly attractive men (as in Billy Budd). Of all modern composers, Britten surely wrote the most for boy singers; and in A Midsummer Night's Dream he cast Oberon, the Fairy King, as a male falsettist (or “countertenor”)—a boy's voice in a man's body to impersonate a character who schemes for possession of a “changling” (that is, a magically abducted) boy.

The falsetto voice quality is an “exotic” effect, and such effects have always been the bread and butter of opera (defined by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, after all, as “an exotick and irrational Entertainment”36). Britten's operatic dramaturgy, and even his musical style, depends to an unusual degree on juxtapositions of exotic and “normal” or “unmarked” elements, perhaps further reflecting his view of himself as a “marked” man. The often startling effects that such juxtapositions produce is another genuinely modernistic aspect of Britten's manner, despite his refusal to accommodate his technique of composition—for “social” as well as musical reasons—to the direction of the midcentury avant-garde. (About serial technique, for example, he wrote, “I can see it taking no part in the music-lover's music-making; its methods make writing gratefully for voices or instruments an impossibility, which inhibits amateurs and young children.”37)

Britten's basic manner is well typified by the orchestral music that accompanies the short choral epilogue to the final scene in Peter Grimes (Ex. 5-9). It is a reprise of the Interlude at the beginning of act I, which sets the stage for a scene of routine life and work in the Borough, and seems to represent the natural environment in which that life goes on—wind, tide, perhaps skittering eddies, breezes, gulls. The texture is divided into three discrete timbral and tonal layers: a slow melody high in the violins and flute, a cushion of brass consisting of slow chords proceeding from and returning to an A-major triad, and a faster motif in the middle range (clarinet and harp).

In themselves, the various layers are all diatonic and, in themselves, stylistically unremarkable. What is remarkable is their conjunction, which involves both tonal contradiction and an impression of rhythmic discoordination. The middle voice alone is intrinsically somewhat unusual in the way it presents the familiar contents of the “white key” diatonic scale as a tonally ambiguous arpeggio of stacked thirds over two octaves. On two levels, then, Britten contrives idiosyncratic or extraordinary presentations of material that is part of every listener's ordinary musical experience. It is a technique that has been associated with surrealism, and that association seems to serve equally well to characterize Britten's brand of modernism, which is similarly given to “polytonal” effects. It is a technique of identifying the dramatic representation it accompanies or evokes as being at once realistic—Peter Grimes is often characterized as a verismo opera—and strange.


ex. 5-9 Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, Act III, scene 2, choral epilogue

In Britten's later operas, the juxtapositions take more extreme forms. When (as in The Turn of the Screw or A Midsummer Night's Dream) they evoke the supernatural, Britten's surrealism often involves playful or sardonic invocations of the “aggregate” or “total chromatic” (the basic stuff of serialism). The very opening curtain music in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, establishes a magical dream atmosphere with a progression of major triads with roots on all twelve pitch classes (the slow and regular string glissandos that connect them evoking the heavy breathing of sleepers), and the “sleep music” in act II is a passacaglia on a progression of four harmonies, each played in a different instrumental color, that exhausts the chromatic scale without any pitch repetitions (Ex. 5-10).


ex. 5-10a Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, beginning of Act I


ex. 5-10b Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the passacaglia ground

In The Turn of the Screw, the spooky two-act chamber opera based on Henry James's novella about the corruption of innocent youth by evil spirits, the whole score is laid out over a twelve-tone harmonic grid (Ex. 5-11a). It consists of a prologue and sixteen scenes in different keys. The outer extremities have A as their tonal center; the middle scenes (last in act I, first in act II) have A♭. The successive centers in the first act can be laid out as an ascending A minor scale (plus the crowning A♭); those in the second act form the inversion of the first: a descending mixolydian scale on A♭ (plus the concluding A). Taken together, the two scales exhaust the pitches of the chromatic scale. Each tiny scene, moreover, is linked with the next by an interlude. The one that follows the Prologue is labeled “Theme” and all the others are Variations on it (see Ex. 5-11b and c).


ex. 5-11a Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw, tonal plan (analytical chart by Peter Evans)

The Theme, consisting as it does of an ordering of the twelve pitch classes, could be called a tone row; analysts have pointed to it as Britten's accommodation with serialism (roughly contemporaneous with Copland's and Stravinsky's). Like the row in Copland's Piano Quartet (see chapter 3), Britten's theme separates the chromatic scale into two mutually exclusive whole-tone components, comparable to the complementary scales that govern the tonal progressions of the two acts. But unlike Copland's serialism or Stravinsky's, Britten's simple twelve-tone manipulations are unrelated to Schoenberg's techniques and could easily have occurred to a composer who had no knowledge of them. Rather, they are complete rotations or traversals (or “turns”) of the chromatic spectrum within a traditional (if not an entirely conventional) key scheme. They illustrate, and were no doubt motivated by, the title concept—a turn that tightens a trap.


ex. 5-11b Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Theme with pitches numbered


ex. 5-11c Benjamin Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Variation I with pitches numbered

In Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, he at last hazarded a subject in which pederastic attraction was an explicit theme—and a destructive one, reflecting Britten's own puritanical acceptance (like Peter Grimes's) of society's judgment of his real-life predilections. Mann's novella concerns a great writer, Gustav Aschenbach (though to have been modeled on Gustav Mahler), who prides himself on the “Apollonian” control he exercises over his work, but who unexpectedly conceives an uncontrollable “Dionysian” passion for Tadzio, a young Polish boy he espies while on vacation in Venice Aschenbach not only humiliates himself but even destroys himself physically on account of his homoerotic attraction. Unable to bear parting from the object of his forbidden affection, he responds too late to health warnings and perishes in an epidemic.

To convey Tadzio's unselfconscious, dangerous allure, Britten gave a new twist to an old device. He painted the boy (who does not sing) in exotic “oriental” colors, surrounding him with an aureole of Balinese gamelan music. It was not the first time Britten had used these sounds. He first encountered them in the United States, where he met the Canadian composer and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee (1900–64), who had lived in Bali from 1931 to 1938. McPhee had made arrangements for two pianos of some of his transcriptions of gamelan performances. He and Britten recorded a few of them for the firm of G. Schirmer in 1941.


fig. 5-3 Britten's Death in Venice, act II (Aschenbach observes Tadzio on the Lido beach in Venice). San Francisco Opera, 1997.

The connection with homosexuality was drawn even then: McPhee, like many Euro-American artists, was drawn to Bali not only by its indigenous art, but also by its reputation as a sexual paradise where one could practice “deviant” sex with greater freedom and far less risk of social stigma than one could at home. “Thus,” the music historian W. Anthony Sheppard has observed, “Britten's first impressions of Bali and first exposure to gamelan music were filtered through McPhee's unique descriptions, transcriptions, and experiences.”38

Some scholars have detected echoes of McPhee's transcriptions in the second act of Peter Grimes. In 1956 Britten visited Bali and made some transcriptions of his own, mainly of music performed by a boys’ gamelan that had actually been organized by McPhee a couple of decades earlier. Thus, even his hands-on experience with gamelan “reinforced an imagined realm of sexual permissiveness that would remain in his Orientalist memory,” as Sheppard puts it, establishing a firm “connection between the musical exotic and homosexual opportunity.”39

Britten almost immediately turned his new gamelan experiences to creative account in a ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas, first performed at Covent Garden in 1957. Thus Britten's Tadzio music, for all its idiosyncratic associations, was the work of a genuine gamelan connoisseur. Like McPhee's, Britten's gamelan style employs authentic scales (as closely as Western instruments allow) in the seven-tone pelog tuning (Ex. 5-12), scored for an ensemble of mallet percussion instruments including xylophones, marimbas, glockenspiel, and vibraphone.

Like his nineteenth-century French and Russian predecessors, Britten has come in for some criticism on account of his appropriation of exotic music for sensual and sinister effect, a use that tends to encourage the stereotyping of “others.” His “orientalism” is more plainly metaphorical than most earlier examples, however; it does not portray an actual oriental subject (as Peter Grimes did not represent an actual homosexual protagonist), but characterizes Aschenbach's way of seeing the object of his desire, and his fantasies. The opera's distinctive musical style arises out of the confrontation of unmarked “Western” music, suggestive of normality and respectability, and the marked music of the East, suggestive of irrepressible and illicit desire. The conjunction presented Britten with new, dramatically charged opportunities for the sort of “surrealistic” layerings and juxtapositions that had always characterized his modernism.

Of course neither side “wins.” As in Peter Grimes, Britten confronts his audience with an unsolved problem, another mark of a quintessentially modernist sensibility. Interpreted by sympathetic critics like Brett and Sheppard, Britten's operas emerged in the late decades of the twentieth century with renewed force, as (in Sheppard's words) “personal allegories of specific contemporary social issues—whether of homosexual oppression, racial and ethnic intolerance, or of the pacifist's precarious position in a militant, nationalistic society.”40


(36) Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779).

(37) Schafer, British Composers in Interview; quoted in Carpenter, Benjamin Britten, p. 336.

(38) W. Anthony Sheppard VI, Revealing Masks: Exotic Influences and Ritualized Performance in Modernist Music Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), p. 143.

(39) Ibid.

(40) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Standoff (I). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Standoff (I)." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-005007.xml