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Thoughts on a possible Schubert-Britten connection

Costume fitting for the Glyndebourne centennial production of Britten's opera
Costume fitting for the Glyndebourne centennial production of Britten's opera
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the Merolini to present at soprano Jane Eaglen’s Master Class for the 2014 Merola Opera Program was baritone Gideon Dabi. His selection was Benjamin Britten’s setting of “Billy in the Darbies,” the “rudely printed” ballad that serves as the epilog for Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Sailor, “Look!… Through the port comes the moonshine astray!” Britten’s librettists, E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier wove this into the narrative of the opera Billy Budd, rather than consigning it as an afterthought; so we see Billy singing it in chains as he awaits his execution.

Detached from the narrative and sung with only piano accompaniment (provided by Blair Salter) in what amounts to a recital setting, this music assumes a strikingly different “personality” for the attentive listener. Most important is that it can actually be sung as a ballad, albeit quite removed from the “cheap product” of the text as Melville presented it. The music itself presents Britten’s technique at its most spare. The accompaniment alternates between brief fragments, some of which represent the other sailors asleep in their rocking hammocks while the rest suggest the night watchman on deck, keeping himself awake by piping fanfares on his pennywhistle. Only the vocalist is given an extended melodic line.

While we tend to think only about Britten’s originality, there may be a curiously appropriate source that influenced this particular piece. I am thinking of “Der Leiermann” (the organ-grinder), the final song in Franz Schubert D. 911 cycle Winterreise (winter’s journey) with the most minimal resources of the entire collection. At the end of his “journey of rejection,” the protagonist encounters a barefoot organ-grinder cranking out his tune while almost freezing to death and can only identify with this musician’s desperate condition. Billy, too, has been rejected, he is at the end of his journey, and his condition could not be worse.

What I particularly liked about Decca’s centennial release of their Britten: The Performer box set was what it taught me about those composers Britten particularly liked and how he set about performing their music. Schubert figures significantly in this collection for both instrumental chamber music and art song. The latter category includes a performance of D. 911 that Britten made with his life partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Britten clearly knew “Der Leiermann” well and approached it with great sensitivity. It would be more than mere coincidence if that knowledge and sensitivity turned out to play some role in his composition of Billy’s last extended solo in Billy Budd.