In regards to Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, it seems scholars and critics have come to an understanding that the work carries subtle (and not so subtle) ideas about homosexuality. With Britten and Foster both being homosexual, it is not hard to imagine that an opera written by them would have many underlying themes. I’d like to clarify that by using the term “homosexual” I do not merely speak of physical and sexual aspect of two males in a relationship, rather I speak primarily of an emotional connection that is more nuanced (which is perhaps how Britten would have wanted the subject to be interpreted). Though there is quite a bit of literature dedicated to discussing some of the ways in which Britten and the librettists treated the subject of homosexuality in Billy Budd, there is still something to be desired in their writings. The relationship between Claggart and Budd, while not completely neglected, is not given the same attention as the dynamic between Captain Vere and Budd. This makes a sort of sense considering the fact that authors primarily focus on the spiritual motivations and ideas presented in the work, effectively negating the deeper conversation to be had in regards to the palpable homoerotic concepts presented in the work. In examining Claggart’s aria, “O Beauty, o Handsomeness,” I’d like to bring to attention the possibility that Claggart is not only wrestling with his own “depravity,” against Billy’s “goodness,” but also his homoerotic feelings towards the man. It is because of these deeper, more visceral desires that Claggart feels the need to “annihilate” Billy; in destroying the man, he will end the desires that are causing him such emotional and mental distress.
The point at which Claggart’s sexual desires become clear occurs just before the start of his aria. Just after he has ordered Squeaks to be punished for rummaging through Billy’s pack, (which Claggart asked of him), he turns to Billy and says, “Handsomely done, my lad.” After a few brief moments, he orders the crew to put their lights out and as they do, Claggart is left repeating to himself, “handsome indeed…Handsome.” In the background, a choir of disembodied voices sings the somewhat haunted verse of “Over the Ocean,” displaying not only the waves out at sea, but perhaps the swelling and quelling of Claggart’s desire for Budd. Oscillating intervals of 3rds and 4ths deprive the audience of a clear tonal center, evoking his unease and conflicting feelings as he begins his aria. Slowly, the music intensifies as low stringed instruments fill out the bass texture until higher strings and flutes add to the heightened sense of instability, leading to a violent outburst from Claggart. This explosion is a vehement rejection of his feelings toward Billy and his resolve to be rid of them in the only way he knows how. Perhaps Britten and the librettists for Billy Budd meant to portray Claggart as the type of man who wrestles against his homosexuality because of how society views it, and thus has internalized his own self hatred.
Perhaps this was one of the goals of Britten, to portray the difficulties of being a homosexual in a society that viewed it as morally abhorrent. As I continue to study the score and text of Billy Budd, the more I believe this to be true. However, it also raises other questions about the deeper, subtexual conversation that is going on in the score in regards to Claggart and his “depravity,” and Billy Budd in his “goodness.” Could Britten be referring to homosexuality as the part Claggart’s depravity, or is it the opposite? Is the acceptance of one’s own homosexuality the very thing that brings salvation as could be insinuated with Captain Vere? These questions are well out of the range of this blog post, but they are definitely worth investigating.
By Jacque Hale
Fuller, Michael. “The Far-Shining Sail: A Glimpse of Salvation in Britten’s Billy Budd.” The Musical Times 147, no. 1895 (2006): 17-24. doi:10.2307/25434380.
Hindley, Clifford. “Love and Salvation in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’.” Music & Letters 70, no. 3 (1989): 363-81. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/735471.
Phillips, Kathy J. “Billy Budd as Anti-Homophobic Text.” College English 56, no. 8 (1994): 896-910. doi:10.2307/378768.
Porter, Andrew. “Britten’s ‘Billy Budd’.” Music & Letters 33, no. 2 (1952): 111-18. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/730800.