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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Orientalism in Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River Hodgins, Jean


Benjamin Britten's Curlew River, Op. 71 was written in 1964, eight years after a prolonged trip to the Near East. This trip had a profound effect on three of Britten's major works, namely his ballet score The Prince of the Pagodas,- Op. 55 written in 1956, Songs from the Chinese, Op. 58 written in 19 57 and finally Curlew River. These three works show in various ways a merging of Britten's personal style with specific oriental musical characteristics giving rise to a particularly interesting cultural synthesis. In the last of these works, Curlew River, the' compositional style of the composer becomes so integrated with oriental, and specifically Noh-drama characteristics that to analyse and enumerate separate cultural aspects in the music becomes a difficult task. In order to discuss Curlew River as a cross-cultural phenomenon, a critical examination of certain aspects of style and performance in two cultural spheres is necessary. A brief discussion of the Medieval mystery play and the Japanese Noh Drama and their important components is a logical preliminary to any detailed analysis of Curlew River. Also, a general look at what "orientalism" has meant historically, in the field of western music, is important in forming some points of reference for the proposed study. Further, in an attempt to characterize "orientalism" in Curlew River, a brief look at Britten's previous excursions into this area will be undertaken. On a more detailed level, a discussion of certain aspects of Britten's compositional techniques in Curlew River is necessary emphasizing specific cultural borrowings from the Japanese Noh Drama in areas of vocal, instrumental, ensemble, dramatic and structural writing. It is expected that, in considering Britten's treatment of adapted non-western compositional techniques within the framework of his own personal style, a clearer conception will evolve of the extent to which Britten integrates aspects of two such diverse musical cultures. Although Benjamin Britten, in a "Note by the Composer" enclosed in the London Recording (1965) of Curlew River, writes that there is "nothing specifically Japanese left in the Parable that William Plomer and I have written a strong case can be made for the cultural synthesis that Curlew River represents. While lists of parallels may be drawn between the two types of morality plays - the Noh Drama and the Medieval religious play - and while further parallels may be drawn between Sumidagawa and its realization Curlew River, the real task lies in showing how Britten was able to avoid a naive pastiche of the Japanese model and instead was able to create an integrated, viable and innovative Church Parable. While the parallel concept is generally realized by researchers, there have been few attempts to show the depth of cross-cultural concept inherent in Curlew River. Therefore, it would appear to be important to examine critically and to reveal Benjamin Britten's extraordinary ability to absorb another culture's musical ideal, to incorporate this ideal into conventions of his own musical culture and. to arrive at a work that is still representative of his own highly individual compositional style. Curlew River, the last of Britten's works directly influenced by orientalism and considered by many scholars to be tremendously influential on his later scores, presents a unique opportunity for such a study.

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