Setting the Scene, Conveying Vere’s Pain: Britten’s Approach to the Prologue of Billy Budd

billybudd_captain
Photo courtesy of The Organ (theorganmag.com)

One of the most interesting points of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is the way in which it begins and ends. The bulk of the opera is a flashback of a former ship captain, Edward Vere. This flashback is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, both of which depict Vere as an old man, reflecting pensively on his time as captain of the HMS Indomitable, when a sailor named Billy Budd was a member of his crew. The flashback between the prologue and epilogue shows the audience the events that Vere is reflecting on. The sailor Billy is portrayed as a loyal, grateful, positive, likeable, dashing, and overall incredibly charming man. The ship’s Master-At-Arms, John Claggart, was deeply jealous of Billy’s good looks and popularity among the crew. In an effort to eliminate Billy, Claggart falsely accuses him of conspiring to start a mutiny. Billy has a stutter that prevents him from speaking when he becomes overwhelmed with emotion and, unable to defend himself against Claggart’s false accusation, he lashes out by striking and killing Claggart. For this, Billy is sentenced to death. Although in the epilogue Vere finds peace, in the prologue we find the old man expressing intense guilt over allowing Billy’s execution to be carried out. Britten uses a number of compositional elements to illustrate Vere’s pain, set the scene, and underline both the story’s themes and the meaning of the text. The text is as follows:

I am an old man who has experienced much.

I have been a man of action and have fought for my King and country at sea.
I have also read books and studied and pondered

and tried to fathom eternal truth.
Much good has been shown me and much evil,

and the good has never been perfect.

There is always some flaw in it, some defect,

some imperfection in the divine image,

some fault in the angelic song,

some stammer in the divine speech.

So that the evil still has something to do with

every human consignment to this planet of earth.

Oh what have I done? Confusion, so much is confusion.

I have tried to guide other rightly,

but I have been lost in the infinite sea.

Who was blessed me? Who saved me?

In the summer of seventeen-hundred ninety-seven,

in the French wars, in the difficult and dangerous days

after the Mutiny at the Nore, in the days

when I, Edward Fairfax Vere,

commanded the Indomitable.

            The most apparent elements here are declamation, text painting, and instruments mimicking the sounds of environment around Vere. The first sounds are made by the strings, which introduce an ostinato of eighth notes rocking steadily back and forth between two pitches for a few measures, then between a different pair of pitches for another few measures, then another pair of pitches, until the strings return to the initial two pitches and the cycle starts over in the same pattern. This movement in the strings likely mimics the rocking movement of ocean waves. I would contend that this cyclical motion in the strings also suggests the thoughts in Vere’s mind, relentlessly coming back around to his guilty conscience no matter what else he tries to think about. After the introduction of the ostinato, the woodwinds come in to establish a moderately dissonant harmony. There are also horn calls that makes several appearances throughout the piece, whose dotted rhythms suggest the distant horns of boats farther out at sea. The horn calls are ominous in the harmonic context of this piece, and push ever forward, aggressively. The woodwinds also mirror the horns at certain points. I believe this is Vere hearing the boat horns as a dark, divine force drawing nearer to him – his judgment day looms over his conscience as grows old and closer to death. The percussion instruments emphasize the points of climax in which the tempo speeds up, and Vere’s thoughts (and text) begin to race fearfully. When Vere’s thoughts are more pensive and mournful, only the ostinato in the strings accompanies him.

The prologue’s vocal line pays careful attention to the text. Britten employs text painting on several important words. On the words “infinite sea,” the word “infinite” weaves through many pitches before resolving the word “sea.” The words “eternal” and “confusion” also wander through a good number of pitches before resolving to the next word. The word “stammer” is also arguably painted by its short sixteenth-eighth motion that separates the two syllables. Most of the vocal line utilizes declamation, i.e., it is speech-like and adheres to the natural flow, cadence, and syllabic accent of the language. This portion of the opera is too declamatory to be an aria, but the legato in the strings and seemingly regular meter prevent it from sounding like recitative. I think this ambiguity is fitting for a character who is restless and feels that “so much is confusion.” Here is the full text again — the portions in bold are the portions of faster or more frantic “speech,” while the italicized text is the slower, more mournful, almost crying “speech”:

I am an old man who has experienced much.

I have been a man of action and have fought

for my King and country at sea.
I have also read books and studied and pondered

and tried to fathom eternal truth.
Much good has been shown me and much evil,

and the good has never been perfect.

There is always some flaw in it, some defect,

some imperfection in the divine image,

some fault in the angelic song,

some stammer in the divine speech.

So that the evil still has something to do with

every human consignment to this planet of earth.

Oh what have I done? Confusion, so much is confusion.

I have tried to guide other rightly,

but I have been lost in the infinite sea.

Who was blessed me? Who saved me?

In the summer of seventeen-hundred ninety-seven,

in the French wars, in the difficult and dangerous days

after the Mutiny at the Nore, in the days

when I, Edward Fairfax Vere,

commanded the Indomitable.

            Every one of Britten’s compositional choices for this prologue has an incredibly clear intent. Every instrument serves such a well-defined purpose that the audience doesn’t even have to see the scene staged to know what it should look like. With the strings’ motion suggesting waves, the horns and woodwinds imitating the sounds of boats out at sea, and Vere saying he feels “lost in the infinite sea,” listeners will simply close their eyes and automatically picture a man alone on a dock, dejectedly looking out at sea — brooding and disturbed.

— SUSAN SMITH

Bibliography

Britten, Benjamin. “Prologue: I am an old man.” Billy Budd. Conducted by Donald Runnicles. Performed by Niel Shicoff, Bo Skovus, et al. Orfeo Internal Music GmbH. Released December 3, 2003. Accessed February 11, 2018. Naxos Music Library.

Fondazione Teatro la Fenice di Venezia. Billy Budd. Fondazione Teatro la Fenice di Venezia, 2000. Accessed February 11, 2018. http://www.teatrolafenice.it/media/libretti/13_1941billybudd_bb.pdf.

Whitall, Arnold. “Billy Budd.” Grove Music Online. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000009276.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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