In reading critical responses to Billy Budd, it is difficult not to be intrigued by the variety of reactions to the libretto. Benjamin Britten’s choices for librettists were Eric Crozier and E. M. Forster. Forster had a reputation as a brilliant writer – but before his work on Billy Budd, he had never written for music. Crozier certainly must have contributed to the libretto, but it seems most of the credit is given to Forster (perhaps because he was more famous). Some approved of, or saw no issue with, the libretto — but to others, Forster’s lack of experience with music was evident. In Mitchell et al.’s Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, we find the opera’s text described in a number of unflattering ways. Philip Hope-Wallace called it “fumbling” (694), Ernest Newman states that Britten was “ill-served by his librettists” (696), and John Ireland felt it was “unsatisfactory” (700). Others waved away these criticisms as silly. Lennox Berkeley’s response to Newman was that “a special kind of Bedlam for musical critics seems necessary” (700), while Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote only that “the music, like the libretto, is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the story” (686). Frank Howes and Eric Blom both used the exact same term when they stated that Britten was “well served” by his librettists (691 and 695, respectively). This discrepancy in reception begs a question that I as a voice student, quite surprisingly, have yet to explore: what makes a “good” or “bad” libretto?
One of the most comprehensive sources I could find on the subject is Harold Child’s Some Thoughts on Opera Libretto. A cogent point is made on pages 245-246: “Historians of music seem to agree that from the drama, not from music, came the first advances…and music was to do no more than heighten the effect of the words.” Put simply, vocal music’s musical elements are subservient to the text. This is a given in the classical music field, and Britten clearly does not stray from this practice with Billy Budd when one examines his use of declamation and text painting. Child also points out that some texts “lend themselves” better to music than others, like that of French poetry for Baroque opera (246). Traditionally, it is expected that a libretto contain text “which a composer [can] wed [to] continuous music” (247). It seems in the twentieth century, when composers threw the rulebook out of the window and turned towards an experimental approach, this expectation was dismissed and opera was allowed to be more through-composed. As such, finding text considered “appropriate” for opera was of lesser concern than before.
It may be understandable that some critics would take issue with Billy Budd for reasons related to its libretto, as this approach to composing around text was (and is) so incredibly new. Most of the libretto’s detractors cited this twentieth-century, non-traditional approach to text setting as a drawback. J.F. Waterhouse wrote, “sometimes it seems as though, in his attempt to catch in music the natural inflections of a spoken phrase, [Britten] has let musical values go hang” (Mitchell et al., 694). John Ireland felt that “there was a lack of continuity and concentration, as regards the action and general design,” and that “most of it would be quite silly and unintelligible. There are no ‘tunes’” (Mitchell et al., 700). A good bit of the negative response to Forster and Crozier’s libretto was simply that it did not lend itself to traditional, pre-twentieth-century opera conventions, such as clear delineations between recitative and aria. Perhaps the lack of familiarity with more modern approaches left a poor taste in the mouths of critics.
The other criticism of Billy Budd’s libretto cited in Mitchell, et al. revolves around the librettists’ interpretations (or lack thereof) of the source material’s characters. Most of the aforementioned critics, as well as Blom who generally approved of the libretto, took issue with the perceived lack of character development for Captain Vere, Claggart, Budd, or all three. More than one critic found the interpretation of Vere as a “moralizing” character, and therefore, bothersome (687, 693, 696). Richard Capell found Vere “enigmatic” and “inexplicable” – and not intriguingly so, but rather, in an underdeveloped and incomplete sense.
I find criticisms of the characters’ ambiguity valid only to a certain extent. Many sources (particularly Whittall) have duly noted how incredibly and intentionally ambiguous Melville’s characters are to begin with. How far can a composer-librettist team go in assigning more specificity to an intentionally vague character before they have perverted the original work or insulted the author? Because the answers to this question are inherently subjective, I can only fault Forster and Crozier so much for not developing the three main characters past a certain point. Critiques along this line simply betray the critics’ lack of imagination and discomfort with uncertainty. Capell argues that “the difference between life and art is that art must not be inexplicable, whatever life may be” (Mitchell et al., 690). I disagree entirely. Why can’t art mirror life’s uncertainty? Why is art obligated to always provide us with the answers, or the comfort of specificity? It is undoubtedly interesting to explore how each individual art “consumer” (in opera’s case, audience member) interprets a character presented to them only in a limited capacity. Such an exploration would be a fascinating intersectional study of art, psychology, and individual as well as collective human identity.
The question of what constitutes a “good” libretto yields few objective answers, unfortunately. The only way to scientifically determine any art form’s quality lies in conducting surveys and interviews with a healthily representative population sample – and such a study may yield trends or patterns that point to what is considered “good,” but such findings still would not render the nature of any approach to art objectively good or bad. For this reason, some may find entire discussions of what makes “quality” art pointless, but I disagree with that view as well, as it stems from the same discomfort with uncertainty that Forster and Crozier’s critics seem to have.
— SUSIE SMITH
Braswell, William. “Melville’s Billy Budd as ‘An Inside Narrative.’” American Literature 29, no. 2 (1957): 133-46. doi:10.2307/2922102.
Child, Harold. “Some Thoughts on Opera Libretto.” Music & Letters 2, no. 3 (1921): 244-53. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/726059.
Emslie, Barry. “‘Billy Budd” and the Fear of Words.” Cambridge Opera Journal 4, no. 1 (1992): 43-59. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/823775.
Forster, E. M., and Wendy Moffat. “‘So Much Generosity and Affection’: Some Newly-Discovered Letters of E. M. Forster.” Modern Language Studies 33, no. 1/2 (2003): 7-23. doi:10.2307/3195305.
Lago, Mary. “Introduction: Forster on E. M. Forster.” Twentieth Century Literature 31, no. 2/3 (1985): 137-46. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/441286.
Law, Joe K. “‘We Have Ventured to Tidy up Vere’: The Adapters’ Dialogue in Billy Budd.” Twentieth Century Literature 31, no. 2/3 (1985): 297-314. doi:10.2307/441298.
McDowell, Frederick P. W. “E. M. Forster’s Theory of Literature.” Criticism 8, no. 1 (1966): 19-43. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/23094237.
Mitchell, Donald, Phillip Reed, and Mervyn Cook, eds. Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, 1913-1976. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Oliver, Michael. Benjamin Britten. London: Phaidon Press, 1996.
Porter, Andrew. “Britten’s ‘Billy Budd.’” Music & Letters 33, no. 2 (1952): 111-18. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/730800.
Whittall, Arnold. “‘Twisted Relations’: Method and Meaning in Britten’s ‘Billy Budd.’” Cambridge Opera Journal 2/2 (1990): 145-171.
Woodward, A. “The Humanism of E. M. Forster.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 20 (1963): 17-34. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/41801312.