Roger Marsh Composer

Britten’s Church Parables

(Article written to accompany City of Birmingham Touring Opera productions March 1997)

The first performances of Britten’s three Church Parables took place in Orford Church at two year intervals from 1964 to 1968.  The first, Curlew River, resulted from a desire to recreate something of the power and intensity of Japanese Noh theatre, which Britten had encountered during a visit to Japan in 1956.  In his note for Curlew River the composer wrote: ‘The whole occasion made a tremendous impression on me: the simple touching story, the economy of style, the intense slowness of the action, the marvellous skill and control of the performers, the beautiful costumes, the mixture of chanting, speech and singing which, with the three instruments, made up the strange music – it all offered a totally new operatic experience’.  Britten was not, by any means, the first Western artist to feel drawn to Noh: W. B. Yeats and Bertolt Brecht had been greatly influenced by it, and Ezra Pound had written extensively about and translated Noh plays. Nor could it be said that the form was unknown to Britten before his Eastern tour of 1956. But nothing had prepared him for the power of the drama when experienced at first hand.

What would that experience have been like?  Noh drama is enacted on a simple square stage whose features are identical for all performance of all plays.  The backdrop, depicting a single pine tree, is the only scenery. A short bridge leads from the dressing room at the back left corner, and the actors enter and exit along this bridge so slowly that they appear to glide. At the back of the stage sit four musicians – a lautis and three drummers each playing a single drum. At the side of the stage kneels a chorus of eight men, whose singing never varies from a slow and deep chanting.  The actors, never more than four and all male, intone and sing their parts in a highly conventionalized and unexpressive manner. The main actors wear elaborate costume and beautiful masks which cover the entire face and somewhat muffle the voice.  The piercing sounds of the drums, and the strange strangled cries which the drummers emit while they play, are the chief device for increasing the tension of the drama, and at climactic moments the flute joins in with equally piercing and plaintive arabesques in no way tied to the vocal lines of the actors.  The plots of the plays are extremely simple and, like the plot of Sumidagawa on which Britten based Curlew River, usually involve some sort of revelation from the spirit world. In the case of Sumidagawa this revelation involves the chilling appearance, from the grave, of a child actor, whose shrill declamation is as far removed from the purity of our cathedral sopranos as can be imagined.

Britten needed to respond to this experience within the medium of opera, and saw immediately that one could not recreate the ancient Japanese model with any degree of authenticity. With his librettist William Plomer, he retained the Japanese story but transplanted it into a remote fenland setting. Recognising the pervasive presence of Buddhism in Noh he substituted, in Curlew River, a Christian framework. Drawing on the European tradition of the Medieval Mystery play, he settled on the device of a church setting in which the performers are ‘monks’ and the audience a congregation for whom the parable is enacted by the monks themselves. The style in which their ‘play within a play’ is enacted, however, owes much to the conventions of Noh. The protagonists are masked, and the Madwoman (the main character) is played by a man. The entrances are given great importance (and in the early productions took place along a sloping ramp leading to the acting area). The vocal lines are simple and syllabic, and sparsely accompanied.  The chorus of monks chant, often out of phase with one another, to create textures which are intended to generate atmosphere more than to convey specific information. The orchestra, though larger than a Noh ensemble, is no more than a chamber group, and highlights flute and drums rather deliberately. It also contains a chamber organ and a harp, both featured prominently, whose music equally betrays clear Japanese influence, although the influence comes more from the court music (Gagaku) than from Noh.

With Curlew River Britten created a new and personal form of music theatre which deliberately stands apart from the conventions of the opera house. Within the context of the radical experimentalism of the sixties (in particular the music theatre works of Kagel, Berio, Ligeti, Cage etc) it may not seem a very bold departure. However, when one considers the burgeoning of a British school of music theatre (Goehr, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, Weir) from the late sixties onwards, one can see how influential the Britten model may have been.  In any case, it is interesting that Britten himself did not rest content with his single direct recreation of Noh, but developed the model further through the composition of two more ‘Church Parables’, The Burning Fiery Furnace, and The Prodigal Son.  Here the stories are no longer from the remote world of medieval Japan, but from the more familiar world of the Old and New Testaments, respectively.

In The Burning Fiery Furnace, the Curlew River formula is kept intact – only the story changes.  Monks enter chanting, announce and then perform a moralistic tale which demonstrates God’s grace, and finally exit chanting once more. Because of the Babylonian setting the music takes on a less Japanese and more Middle Eastern quality at certain dramatic moments. The climactic appearance of the angel, however, has precisely the same manner as the spirit’s appearance in Curlew River. It is as though Britten is remaining faithful to a set of conventions which he has himself devised. Even the chamber orchestra remains the same, with only the addition of a trombone to fuel the orgiastic atmosphere of the idolatrous Babylon.

In The Prodigal Son there are further developments (or regressions) away from the Noh origins of the form. Once again the monks begin chanting, but this time they leave their Abbot behind, ready to spring upon the unsuspecting audience already fully costumed as ‘the Tempter’ – a devilish device more in keeping with the popular Kabuki entertainments, (or perhaps with a less exotic tradition also drawn upon by Stravinsky in The Soldier’s Tale?). The music of The Prodigal Son, too, takes on a less minimal and far more harmonic character, through a greater use of homophonic part writing in both vocal and instrumental lines.  Perhaps, also, because the story is so much more familiar to a Western audience, this piece feels far less challenging than the first of the trilogy. Does this matter? Not a bit. On the contrary, it can be seen as a demonstration of how clear Britten was that a recreation of Noh in Western terms could never be on the agenda. And although each of the three scores carries clear guidance about the importance of the original production ideas arrived at by Britten and his producer Colin Graham, all closely modelled on the controlled and conventionalized gestures of Noh, this may also be an argument for the reinterpretation of those guidelines in ways appropriate for a contemporary audience. For just as Orford Church is not Tokyo, so a modern concert hall is not Orford Church…..

c Roger Marsh. 1997