Benjamin Britten's Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate: Madness, grief and the inspiration of Noh

Britten's Curlew River, a "church parable" which is currently being performed at St Giles, Cripplegate in the City of London, was inspired by a surprise encounter on a trip the composer took to Tokyo in 1956.

I’ve just returned from the dress rehearsal of Curlew River at St Giles Cripplegate in the City of London. This moated church was originally built in the 12th century and is now enclosed by the concrete towers of the Barbican Centre.

It’s a strange island outpost but an apt setting for one of Britten’s most unusual and – I think I’m right in saying – least performed works.

It’s an opera about a mother who has lost her child. It’s sung by an all-male cast and consists of just a few characters: the mother (called ‘the madwoman’ because she is wracked by grief); the ferryman; and the traveller.

It’s a very simple story: the madwoman arrives at the bank of the Curlew River. She’s in a state of distraction and begs the ferryman, who’s dismissive of her plight, to let her come on board. In desperation, she explains she is searching for someone, and eventually the ferryman relents.

As they cross the river, the ferryman explains that this day is an important anniversary. A year ago a boy died by the Curlew River, having been abandoned by his cruel master. The boy’s tomb is now a site of pilgrimage.

As the ferryman tells the story, it becomes apparent that the boy who died is the madwoman’s son. On disembarking from the boat, she is taken to the graveside to say a prayer for his soul. At the end of the opera, the boy appears to the assembled company and blesses his mother.

Britten called this small-scale opera a church parable and wrote it to be performed in Orford church near his home at Aldeburgh. The first production was in 1964, but the idea for Curlew River had been planted in the composer’s mind eight years earlier – in Tokyo.

On a world tour with his partner Peter Pears in 1956, Britten had stopped off in Japan and seen a fifteenth century Noh play called Sumidagawa or The Sumida River.

Britten’s first reaction to the play was to laugh. As Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke points out, Britten may have found the distinctive warbling of the singers reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s Eccles in The Goon Show.

But Britten’s initial embarrassment was supplanted by deep interest. It was clear to him that his experience of the Noh play would form the basis for a work of his own.

Before he could get round to it, however, there were other projects to tackle – in particular the War Requiem, an incredibly elaborate choral work commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After its completion he sought a change of direction and Curlew River provided the outlet.

Like Sumidagawa, Curlew River has a small number of soloists and a chorus. Like the Noh play, it is sung by an all-male cast, wearing masks and acting the story through sparse, stylized movements. The libretto of Curlew River was closely based on an English translation of Sumidagawa; and Britten used flute, drums and bells to inflect the score with the air of Japanese music.

This, however, is the where the comparison ends. Britten took the story of Sumidagawa and transposed it to the East Anglian fenlands. He also framed the story as a medieval mystery play, and replaced the Buddhist reference points with Christian ones. Monks enter the church singing a plainsong chant and the abbot, at their head, announces that they are going to act out a story.

As the monks remove their habits and disperse about the stage, the three main characters emerge: the madwoman, the ferryman and the traveller. In this production, they are played by Ian Bostridge, Mark Stone and Neal Davies, and directed by Netia Jones.

On paper, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Curlew River is difficult to stage. It’s not big enough for an opera house and tricky to pull off in a theatre. It’s a bizarre fusion of mystery play and Noh play, and comes with a wodge of notes by the first director Colin Graham, prescribing rules for how it should be performed.

But in Netia Jones’ interpretation, which pays no heed to past productions and concentrates purely on the emotional core of the story, the opera feels startling resonant and true.

It’s extraordinary that Britten should have written a work of such power based on a Japanese play which he could hardly have understood as he was watching it. But perhaps this is the experience he intends us to have in the audience of Curlew River. The characters are like abstract cut outs – open to interpretation, almost like vessels to be filled by the voices of the singers, shapes onto which we can project our imaginations.

The director Netia Jones suggests this idea to us by projecting monochrome film footage onto a blank, white stage. The madwoman, dressed in a long black robe, appears neither male nor female: she simply represents a figure of grief, rather than a character in any realistic sense. Ian Bostridge’s tall, ethereal physical presence intensifies the effect; you completely forget that he is a man playing a woman’s role.

The fact that the story is being acted out by monks who are themselves played by singers implicates the audience in the drama all the more fully. By recognizing that the drama is just a construction we are, conversely, more aware of its connection to real life.

Very little actually happens in the opera, but the relationships between the characters are closely observed. It takes a long time for the madwoman to persuade the ferryman to give her a place in his boat. He enjoys ridiculing her crazy behaviour and mocking her pretensions.

While the ferryman is unmoved by the madwoman’s condition, the traveller is more immediately responsive to her plight, and the chorus, who represent the other passengers, are easily swayed in either direction. Only when it’s revealed that the dead boy is the madwoman’s son does the ferryman show pity and lead her to the boy’s grave.

As the ferryman turns to makes preparations for the return crossing and the other passengers proceed with their journeys, there is a horrifying moment when it seems that the fragile bonds of sympathy that have developed between the characters will once more evaporate, leaving the madwoman to contend with her grief alone.

The ferryman hasn’t time to stop for long before making the return journey. The traveller is (as he tells us) continually on the move. Even the characters themselves will shortly revert to being monks and turn their backs on the story they’ve just brought to life. But the madwoman has nowhere to turn. She remains on stage and in our imaginations, calling for our sympathies. 

Britten’s first church parable does not offer us Christian consolation, despite its ending. It allows us to experience the rush of hope in the madwoman’s heart as her child is heard faintly singing. But the child’s benediction is not echoed in the music. The plainsong that closes the opera is exactly the same as the chant we hear at the beginning.

Are we to be left with this disturbing feeling of circularity? Perhaps. But perhaps a change has occurred in the audience’s minds. The effect of Curlew River is to heighten our sensitivity and enlarge our sympathies, not just for the plight of the madwoman but for the people she represents.

Curlew River will be performed as part of the Barbican Britten Festival in London on 14 - 16 November.

Curlew River is also the subject of a Radio 4 programme, produced by Isabel Sutton, on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30 on 19 November. The programme is a Just Radio production.

St Giles, Cripplegate, between the Brutalist towers of the Barbican Estate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times