With grateful thanks to Jacki for allowing us to film at Orford Church.
After two decades of writing operas in the (relatively) conventional sense, Britten’s next three stage works were ‘Church Parables’: dramas with strongly ritualistic content and form, designed to be performed in church. His first, Curlew River, was composed two years after the mighty forces and huge public success of War Requiem, and perhaps represents a retreat from ‘largeness’ in its modest forces. As Roger Wright explains in this week’s film, the ‘orchestra’ here comprises only seven instruments.
The piece was based on a Japanese Noh play, Sumidagawa, that Britten had seen performed on a visit to Tokyo 8 years earlier. It relates the story of a madwoman who has lost her child; she eventually discovers that he has died, and that his grave has become a shrine. The role of the madwoman is for the tenor voice, and in fact the whole cast is male in this work, and in Britten’s subsequent two Church Parables The Burning Fiery Furnace and The Prodigal Son.
Britten conceived a remarkable musical language for Curlew River, which was to foreshadow his later compositions in the early 1970s. The instrumentalists and singers were also allowed more autonomy, through rhythmic freedom and the absence of a conductor; yet at the same time the gestures and choreography of the piece was constructed in extraordinary detail in advance of the first performance. Colin Graham, the producer of the first run, later wrote:
Every movement of the hand or tilt of the head should assume immense meaning and, although formalized, must be designed and executed with the utmost intensity: this requires enormous concentration on the part of the actor, an almost Yoga-like muscular, as well as physical, control.
With Curlew River Britten began to pare back his musical language, a refinement that lasted more or less throughout the following decade. The reduced forces and relatively sparse texture does not reduce the intensity of musical expression and the Parable is powerfully affecting in performance.