Musical Character and Captain Vere

Vere

Benjamin Britten’s, Billy Budd, is about reminiscing on life in ones later years. In this case, Captain Vere, an old man, is examining the choices he made in his life. These choices seem to come at price of good versus evil. One particular choice he made is shown in ‘I accept their verdict.’ This aria is depicting the choice Captain Vere has made to not save Billy from his death sentence. During this aria, Britten has made it apparent that Captain Vere, although remorseful, has accepted the consequences of his decision. Britten sets the mood, style and emotions present in the situation clearly with a particular style and character in the music.

Starting in the key of F Minor, ‘I accept their verdict’, is played at a slow tempo (half note equals 54) in 2/2 meter later to change to a quicker tempo in a 4/4 meter. The texture is very thin with a sort of call and response between woodwinds and brass at a piano dynamic. Hearing the orchestra, and knowing the context of the lyrics and plot of the opera, a particular character of music came into my mind: a funeral march. Typically, funeral marches begin in a minor key, such as that of Chopin’s Marche Funébre in his Sonata No. 2 in Bb Minor or in Beethoven’s Marcia Funebre sulla morte d u n Eroe, in his Eroica Symphony. As stated above, Britten starts this particular song in F Minor. The sounds from all the pieces mentioned above start dark, mysterious, and low in pitch. In the example with Beethoven, as the piece goes on, the instrumentation grows, which thickens the texture, and the pitches rise higher and the dynamic levels grow. The same situation is happening in ‘I accept their verdict.’ In Chopin’s Marche Funébre, there is a consistent use of the dotted eighth, sixteenth note. Although ‘I accepted their verdict’ does not have this particular rhythm, there is a repetition of two sixteenth notes, two eighth notes and triplet. This repeated rhythm somewhat also serves as an ostinato throughout the beginning of the song. The dynamics of both pieces are very similar as well. Both start very soft at a piano dynamic level and stay at this level for a good amount of time. As the texture thickens, both dynamic levels grow to a forte, only staying here for a short amount of time. The similarities between these pieces also show a connection of Britten quite possibly portraying this song as a funeral march foreshadowing Billy Budd’s death, the decision of Captain Vere.

I found it particularly interesting that Britten has Captain Vere singing about his decision, in the character of a death march about someone who hasn’t even died yet. But, when I come to think of it, Captian Vere knows very well that because of his choices, Billy Budd would die. Britten is able to highlight Captain Vere’s emotions towards his decision and consequences through the style of a funeral march. It is almost a hint of foreshadowing the death of Billy Budd through the music. The situation of Captain Vere’s emotions are captured successfully and creatively through Britten’s skills as a composer.

Bibliography

Blair, Elizabeth. “Chopin’s Iconic Funeral March.” NPR. March 01, 2010. Accessed February 11, 2018. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124039949.

Harris, Catherine T., and Clemens Sandresky. “Love and Death in Classical Music-Methodological Problems in Analyzing Human Meaning in Music.” Symbolic Interaction 8, no. 2 (1985): 291-310. doi:10.1525/si.1985.8.2.291.

Oliver, Michael . “Reputation Growing Steadily: 1934-9.” In Benjamin Britten, 45-72. London: Phaidon, 1996.

Steblin, Rita. “Who Died? The Funeral March in Beethovens Eroica Symphony.” The Musical Quarterly 89, no. 1 (2006): 62-79. Accessed February 10, 2018. doi:10.1093/musqtl/gdk010.

“Synopsis: Billy Budd.” Metropolitan Opera | Billy Budd. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://www.metopera.org/Discover/Synposes-Archive/Billy-Budd/.

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