on 11 September 2011
Brilliant Gregorian beginning in the sonority of a medieval church we can imagine Romanesque. And we are transported to an eternal time that has to be out of time.
We are introduced to the abandoned and the weak on the side of the road and God lifting them up, giving them some life back. God is with the dejected and rejected. The Curlew River becomes the divide between this world and another more humane world and the Ferryman is the Go-Between that takes you to the other side of your soul.
A rite is to be performed for the first anniversary of a burial on the other side of the river, a grave that is a curing place for the sick. The ferryman is going to bring the people to that shrine. The trumpet of the ferryman is like the trumpet of Jericho: crossing the river is like bringing down the wall that hides the unknown.
The harp brings the traveler evoking some mermaid, some voyage, from far behind to far ahead, from the remembered to the unknown, then a change occurs and is announced by the music.
The mad woman is introduced as crazy and having made people laugh with her raving. Her discourse is incoherent, she asks for passage as well as for passage to be refused to her. The reedy sound at that time shows that uncertainty, more than craziness. She is distracted by the loss of her child she is looking for and she sees and loses at the same time. Her discourse is incongruent and the music plays on these notes going up and then down as if hesitating to follow one way and only one.
She explains her son was stolen from her by a stranger and taken east. This dramatic event has made her mind unclear and fuzzy, which is expressed by the last syllable of the first lines going up and then systematically turning down. Is there still some hope? It sounds very bleak, a favorite theme with Benjamin Britten: the child enslaved by some adult that is no relative. He approaches the motif through the deranged mother.
Then the ferryman refuses to take her across the Curlew River and demands her to sing in order to entertain people. This rejection of the one who seems warped is surprising and yet common with Benjamin Britten who constantly tries to explore this divide between acceptance and refusal, normal and abnormal.
The madwoman starts speaking in a language that is too sophisticated and she starts more or less asking birds a question about the one she loves and if he is still alive. At this moment we feel all the expectancy in her mind, she is both suffering and hoping. The situation then becomes tense because everyone asks the ferryman to take the mad woman till he finally yields since she knows where she wants to go. The superposition and even contrast between voices though they are all men's voices create a deep dramatic tension.
Strangely enough the dividing river is turned into a connection bringing people closer to one another and on the other bank they discover people around a yew. The ferry has brought the west bank people to the east bank people. The music seems to be alternating between a forward movement and a retreat.
The explanation given by the ferryman about a boy that came along with a foreigner as his master, and that boy being sick while crossing and then unable to go on, was struck, abandoned by his master, taken care of by locals but he died after telling he was the only son of a dead nobleman and had been kidnapped. He dies and is buried along the way and a yew is planted. People say he is a saint, come, pray and take some earth to cure their sicknesses.
They all start praying a Kyrie Eleison of thankful hope for a sad but miraculous event. The music is then very light with some sad beauty, the beauty of the miracle and the sadness of the dead boy. The mad woman is weeping. They come to the shore, punctuated by the drums. The traveler and other people offer prayers to the boy, but the ferryman is pushing them, along with the drums and kettles, to make haste.
Then the madwoman realizes the boy must be her son. The music takes the shape of a dirge with long silences between sad sentences and the singing voices are superimposed without being unified, each one pulling in a different direction. The woman starts mourning and wants to see her son again. The music becomes a complex assemblage of whirls and whorls as if taken in a maelstrom of emotions. But the abbot tells her weeping does not help the child whereas a prayer may bring him peace. She yields and gets ready to deliver a prayer, while the toll is ringing on the percussions, persistent and sad.
Then the prayer becomes powerful with the superposition of the Traveler and madwoman's English on the monks' Latin very Gregorian chant. The alliance of modern music and medieval singing creates a very powerful atmosphere. The flute supports the madwoman with some rather sharp notes. And a very high pitched voice starts singing as if it were the voice of the child praying in his tomb. Then this spiritual voice introduces the spirit himself that comes to the madwoman and transforms her.
The spirit brings the good news that the dead will rise again and the singing becomes very pure on a single note like a continuo to gives depth to the sky high and spiritual singing. The conclusion can then go back to the Gregorian chant and Latin. The prediction is finished. The sign from God has been registered and accepted. The progressive building up of the unified medieval chorus really brings the piece to its fulfillment.
I would like to add a few things to this presentation.
First it is the pattern we find in this church opera. I am not really interested by the Japanese inspiration. I listen to it as an English post World War II composition by Benjamin Britten and there is a pattern that has nothing to do with the Japanese No tradition. We have here the story of a boy who was abducted by a stranger, a foreigner, a heathen Northland man. We can only think of the 1963 (three years earlier) cold war spy novel by John Le Carré, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.” This man is here presented as “a man without a heart” who brutalizes the child when he is dying. He appears as the one who causes his death because of the abduction though he does not kill him directly. This is a common theme in Benjamin Britten work.
Then this twelve year old boy is buried. A yew grows next to him, a yew is the very symbol of an ever growing tree that grows slowly but can live for centuries. A yew is the symbol of life that can go beyond human time since it can join hundreds of human generations. It is a tree that has no beginning and no end in a way. He is a tree that represents God who is beyond the alpha and the omega. And this boy appears at the end as a spirit who can speak to his mother because she finally comes down from her grief and accepts to pray for the boy. Thus the yew becomes the symbol of the reunion, reconciliation, rejoining of many generations, of people from all sides, at least from the west and from the east, those from the west crossing the dividing Curlew river to make that pilgrimage in the east. It is obvious now that there is beyond these cardinal orientations a discourse on the world: the old world of the Crusades to the East to the Holy Land, and the modern world and its Iron Curtain. We have to step beyond our divides to reunited humanity into the belief in a salvation that cannot come if we do not pray for it. The Yew is also a tree that grows up straight, higher and higher year after year. It is a typical Romanesque symbol of vegetal elevation towards heavens and God, that elevation that was represented in Romanesque churches with the sculptures of many plants that just grow up to the sky like ferns and many others, or like angels and birds who can fly.
And that is this idea of salvation if we forgive, and maybe at least push aside if not forget, the evil that was imposed onto us that is the wish of a redemption with the promise of a final reunion in heaven. We can take this Christian tale as a metaphor or a parable of real life and then we can expect a redemption in life if we are able to forgive people and step up to the renascence of our own minds, of our own souls in the light of the communion with those who have been the victims of the past. This pattern is not only a parable or a metaphor carried by the semantic meaning of the words. It’s a lot more.
It is also carried by the poetry of the text dramatically reinforced by the music that is expressive in supporting every single syllable with an instrument, a note, a tone that all contribute to the serenity (to be specified) that is slowly built in the opera. It is all built on a ternary figure or motif. The three main characters, the Madwoman, the Traveller and the Ferryman are the very core of the opera. But from the very start the language reflects that ternary pattern and widens it slightly. The phrase “a sign was given of God’s grace” we have three /g/ sounds. It is echoed with the reduced phrase “a sign of God’s grace” with only two /g/ sounds, which makes five. This is repeated just a few lines lower in the very same form. And that makes four instances of “God’s grace.” But a third instance of this pattern is given some lines lower but without the echo and it becomes: “as innocence outshineth guilt, a sign was given of God’s good grace.” By adding “good” the librettist and composer turn the ternary phrase into a group of four /g/ sounds. And they introduce a fifth one before with “guilt” which brings the group to five /g/ sounds. We have thus five “God’s grace” phrases and we have three instances of five /g/ sounds. In the Christian context we are not surprised by the ternary figure which is the Holy Trinity, hence God in its ternary unity. But five implies that something evil lies at the core of this human reality, in spite of God’s grace. It is the pentacle of evil.
We could then think the opera should lead us towards salvation, redemption. It does but the same way as the boy’s spirit tells his mother: we will meet again in heaven when this world comes to an end. The poet and the composer do that at the end with subtlety. First they play on “Amen.” Abbot and Pilgrims say one first “Amen” and just one line lower Ferryman, Traveller, Abbot Pilgrims say two “Amen,” which makes a first group of three. One line lower the Mother/Madwoman says three “Amen,” a second group of three, and behind Ferryman, Traveller, Abbot and Pilgrims say two “Amen” finally echoed by a final one “Amen” by the Boy’s Spirit, which makes a third group of; three. All together nine and nine is the Apocalypse, Doomsday, the ninth hour when Jesus died on the cross, the crucifixion being identified to four and being absent here, ninth hence that represents also the death of the world after the second coming which is identified as eight, an upright standing omega of the end, the final end, and this ninth “Amen” is brought by the Boy’s Spirit because he announces heaven and meeting again with his mother.
And yet the very ending is more complex in that ambiguity.
First a repeat from the beginning: “a sign was given of God’s grace. A sign of God’s grace” with five /g/ sounds and a disquieting pentacle. Further on a second repeat from the beginning that I did not mention but could have: “the fallen, the lost, the least.” Three “the”, three /l/ sounds. That makes six, the number of Solomon, of wisdom, in a way of Sophia, the star of David, all elements heavily symbolical after World War II. But add to this the two /st/ endings and you come to a pattern of eight, of the upright omega, of the Second Coming, and yet the next line is a lot crueler: “the hope He gives, and His grace that heals.” Four /h/ sounds, two of them being God and the other two the positive action of God (hope and healing) along with the symbolized gift of his son crucified to redeem human sins and humanity. But also two qualities coming from God, “hope” and “grace” twinned with “gives” and “heals” which creates a double quaternary pattern verb-nouns and /g/-/h/ sounds. Remember that this quaternary pattern is the crucifixion without which the second coming of eight (four plus four) cannot come. Heaven will be after the Second Coming (8), after the Apocalypse (9) both brought by the crucifixion (4) and yet evil is everywhere, even in that last moment since the beast and the Dragon are there too, both representing 999, or 666=18=9+9. Note 666 is the beast in the Book of Revelation and 666=6x111=2x3x3x37, a complex mixture of 2x3=6, wisdom, and 3x3=9 the apocalypse and 2x3x3=18= 2x9=3x6 with the intricate intertwining of 3, 6 and 9.
And the last line is even more cryptic since it expands “hope” into “In hope, in peace, ends our mystery.” You can build “hope-grace-hope-peace,” a quaternary structure reinforced by the repetition of “hope” and the two similar ending of the other two words that do not rhyme really but are an echoing consonant. And this quaternary structure (with the two preceding ones they build twelve, the apostles who are essential at the beginning of the Book of Revelation, but the last four is expanded into five by “mystery,” though the last two had been expanded into three by this very same “mystery.”
I don’t know if that subtlety can be considered as inherited from the Japanese No tradition, but it sure is in phase with the deepest Romanesque symbolism and imaginary world of the first half of the Middle Ages, and then with the more Gothic tradition that will develop from the end of the 13th century to the middle of the 15th century (and slightly longer into the Renaissance in Germany) with the culminating point of the Black Death: a period haunted by the demographic overpopulation crisis, heretics like the Cathars, the Black Death itself of course and then the Danse Macabres and “The Three Living and The Three Dead.”
Hence we can conclude the serenity we spoke of at the beginning of the opera is definitely something difficult to reach in this world and even problematic in the other world.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU