The Prodigal Son

Third parable for church performance. Op. 81 (1968)

First performance

10 June 1968, Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival

The third of Britten’s three Church Parables was inspired by Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal which Britten had seen two years earlier on a trip to Leningrad. Completed in 1968 and, like its two predecessors set to a libretto by William Plomer, the manner of presentation is consistent with the conventions established in Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, but the work marks a significant advance on its predecessors. New colours are provided by the mellow tones of the alto flute, primarily associated with the pastoral tranquillity of the father’s home and by the small trumpet in D which accompanies the Tempter’s promises of excitement.

The theme of an errant adolescent returning home the wiser from his travels is familiar from Albert Herring and it is perhaps significant that The Prodigal Son is the most traditionally ‘operatic’ of the three Parables. From here, with the triptych now completed, it was a logical step for Britten to return to the resources of full-scale opera.

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