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Gavin Plumley: The Unanswered Question

Little tension is produced when good and evil are seen in isolation. Juxtapose the two, however, and a conflagration ensues. More dramatic still is the exploration of the position between these poles. It is the kind of conflict we feel daily, as we ponder what is right and wrong, and it is at the heart of Benjamin Britten’s sixth opera Billy Budd. It tells the story of Captain Vere, as he remembers, confesses the events of the summer of 1797, when he captained a vast war ship, on which Billy Budd killed John Claggart, the evil Master at Arms. But, having presented their respective cases, the opera dares to leave many questions unanswered.

By 1951, when Billy Budd had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in London, Benjamin Britten was an established name, both at home and abroad. Somewhat under the radar before World War II, he shot into the limelight with the 1945 premiere of Peter Grimes, performed at Tanglewood the following year, in a series of lauded international productions. With the premiere of the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the Spring Symphony and a clutch of other new songs and chamber works, Britten was becoming one of the most prominent figures within post-war music. Yet the comforts this success offered did not dim his acuity when it came to matters moral, theatrical and operatic.

Peter Grimes had shown that Britten was intent on tackling difficult subjects in a vivid manner. Its story of a mysterious fisherman at odds with society tapped underlying social tensions and fatigues within mid-20th-century Britain. The Rape of Lucretia, which followed in 1946, seen in Chicago in 1947, likewise confronted a difficult subject with poetic aplomb. And even Albert Herring, a wry grin of a piece, chamber in form and function, questioned the morals and mores of an otherwise unruffled community.

Billy Budd was no different. For his sixth opera, Britten brought together a pair of superb librettists, England’s veteran investigator of social matters, the novelist E.M. Forster, and Eric Crozier, with whom Britten had first worked as a director on The Rape of Lucretia, before he wrote the text for Albert Herring. The commission for the work came from the recently formed Arts Council in Britain, whose first chairman had been the economist John Maynard Keynes, a close friend of Forster. The council was the artistic face of the post-war Welfare State, established under Clement Atlee’s Labour government, endorsing the importance of culture within modern society.

This was cause, of course, for great celebration, as was the Festival of Britain of 1951, celebrating British contributions to science, technology, industry, architecture and the arts. It was only natural that Britten, the most successful British contemporary composer, be featured as part of the festivities. Billy Budd became one of its centerpieces. The task set before Britten was therefore not insignificant. Yet he was undimmed. Rather than providing a meaningless pageant, propping up British pomp and circumstance for the Festival, Billy Budd questioned issues of power and authority and more ambiguous elements of our experience, which neither rules nor regulations can control.

The heart and head of the HMS Indomitable, depicted in the opera, is the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere. Under his command, each rank has its place, with every task specified. It was all vividly detailed in Herman Melville’s unfinished novella, which E.M. Forster read shortly after its posthumous publication in 1924. Melville catalogues everything, from the roles of the nearly 700 men on the ship, to the 74 guns that protect it from enemy attack. The power of such a vessel was considerable, commanding huge respect by means of its speed, strength and agility. As its captain, Vere is no less revered. But what breaks this pecking order is the affection and aggravation caused by the newest, bright-eyed, press-ganged recruit, Billy Budd, as Melville described: “If a captain has a grudge against a lieutenant, or a lieutenant against a midshipman, how easy to torture him by official treatment, which shall not lay open the superior officer to legal rebuke. And if a midshipman bears a grudge against a sailor, how easy for him, by cunning practices, born of a boyish spite, to have him degraded at the gangway. Through all the endless ramifications of rank and station, in most men-of-war there runs a sinister vein of bitterness.” In Forster’s hands, this “sinister vein of bitterness” gained homoerotic overtones, in which suppressed desire plays a significant and dangerous role. This new nuanced reading rendered Captain Vere and his crew’s situation even more complex.

Britten, the master of ambiguity, was doubtless keen to seize on Forster and Crozier’s daring construal of Melville’s story, though an early letter to his publisher Ralph Hawkes indicated that he was “afraid the subject and the treatment will be controversial.” Controversial it can still appear, particularly in an age of intense militarism (and when DADT is a fresh memory). Yet that debate is what makes Billy Budd so gripping. Neither Britten nor his librettists would have felt at ease creating a work that did not address the instabilities as well as the stabilities of Vere’s world, the rancor as well as the splendor of Melville’s story. These clashes are described not only by the rocking motif that underpins Vere’s uneasy prologue, but also by the conflicting musical characterization of Billy and Claggart, with Vere, uncertain, caught in the middle.

Billy injects a wonderful dose of energy into the drama, right from his first entrance. After the protestations of Red Whiskers and Jones—“nothing special, but we must be content”—comes our fresh-faced, press-ganged sailor. The conversation with Claggart, Master at Arms, continues with the same motivic commentary that underpinned Red Whiskers and Jones’s initiations, yet there is a feeling of crescendo, with the motifs now rising to a peak. A rally of horn calls promises much, until Billy’s crippling stammer interrupts, underlined by a tellingly muted trumpet and a roll on a wooden block. But as soon as he’s assumed the position of foretopman, nothing can hamper his innate, optimistic spirit. “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” he exclaims, accompanied by scurrying strings and cymbal in a jolly scherzo-like display.

How different then from the gruff sounds of John Claggart. Commenting on the young foretopman, clearly enrapt, Claggart plans Billy’s demise: “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness! Would that I had never encountered you! Would that I lived in my own world always, in that depravity to which I was born. There I found peace of a sort, there I established an order such as reigns in Hell. But alas, alas! The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it and suffers.” The model here is Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Just as in the Credo in Act Two of that earlier opera—“I believe in a cruel God who created me in his image and who in fury I name”—in which Iago subverts the Christian creed, Claggart likewise upends the redemptive message at the beginning of St John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

The allusion therefore also triggers thoughts of Billy as a messianic figure, with Claggart as a latter day Judas. Certainly, having set Billy’s beauty, both physical and moral, on a pedestal, Crozier and Forster felt it relatively easy to paint a black portrait of the Master at Arms. Answering the pessimistic text they had provided, Britten obliged with dark sonorities, using low brass instruments, such as the trombones and tuba, as well as the contrabassoon and timpani. This stygian rumble summarily quashes Billy’s lyrical buoyancy, described here by a sweeping line in the violins.

These textual, musical and dramatic tensions come to a boiling point in the confrontation between Billy and Claggart, good and evil, after a French ship has disappeared into the mist at the beginning of the second half. Capturing the negative mood on board, Claggart goes to Captain Vere and accuses Billy of mutiny, prompting an astonished outburst and the punch that knocks Claggart dead. Vere is trapped. He cannot endorse goodness, because it has, like the stammer first indicated, proved flawed. Yet he knows that Claggart is fundamentally evil. The moral focus turns inexorably on Vere—“My heart’s broken, my life’s broken. It is not his trial, it is mine, mine. It is I whom the devil awaits.” Following the codes that were standard on board such a ship during the French wars of 1797, Vere sentences Billy to his death—typical for a man who always turns to his books for answers. For Melville too, the response would have been obvious. Yet Britten and his librettists are less certain, communicated in the series of highly ambiguous chords, 34 in all, which follow the trial scene. The final chord in the sequence is F major, resolving the dark F minor tonality with which Claggart had been associated within the drama. All appears well, for a moment.

Billy’s reappearance in irons, singing his pitiful “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” casts significant doubt over Vere’s decision. His death too is totally heartbreaking, as the life and energy of the ship is snuffed out and the sailors are promptly set back to work. Little wonder that Vere confesses, over the returning, unstable, rocking motif, “I could have saved him. He knew it, even his shipmates knew it.” But then, echoing Billy’s final vision of “a sail in the storm, the far-shining sail,” Vere finds resolution, catharsis, echoing St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians—“he has saved me, and blessed me, and the love that passes understanding has come to me.” Do we believe him? Would the events of this opera have emerged from Vere’s memories if that were truly the case? The strength of Billy Budd is that, in its portrait of an intelligent but ultimately spineless man, caught between good and evil, it dares to leave such questions unanswered.

Gavin Plumley is a British writer and musicologist. He has spoken on BBC Radio 3, written for The Independent on Sunday, The Guardian, Classical Music and BBC Music Magazine and he commissions and edits the English-language program notes for the Salzburg Festival.  © Gavin Plumley, 2014

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