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CHRISTINA J. BURRIDGE 'Music, Such as Charmeth Sleep': Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream Andrew Porter, music critic of the New Yorker, has commented that Benjamin Britten is one of very few composers ~who set English words with so delicate an understanding of musical values that even the most familiar lines, once heard conjoined to their music~ are thereafter remembered inseparably from it.1l And this, I think, is the key to the success of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream: despite that familiarity, despite Shakespeare's verbal magic, it is impossible to reread the play after getting to know the opera without the memory of the music, of its rhythm and texture especially, insinuating itself into one's experience. It is this quality ofBritten's A Midsummer Night's Dream that makes itunique among Shakespeare operas. Since Verdi, at least, a composer writing an opera based on a Shakespeare play has had to deal with the problem of adapting the structure of the play to operatic form while retaining a tone and emphasis that are recognizably Shakespearean. But most of the composers who have set out on this rather daunting task have possessed the considerable advantage of being foreign; they have not had to deal with the additional problem of Shakespeare's language. And of those English-speaking composers who have tried, none but Britten has succeeded.2 Britten's solution to this second problem derives not so much from his previous operatic experience as from his song cycles. While in the operas Britten had habituallyworked with texts of high literary quality (and often with librettists of literary repute too), he had never beenbound by having to retain the languge of the original; but in the song cycles, especially those like 'Nocturne' which use poems from a diversity of sources, he faced essentially the same problem as with A Midsummer Night's Dream: how to impose a musical unity on a text whose verba] integrity cannot be violated, a musical unity thatmustreveal something aboutthe words. Soit is sUIely no accident that A Midsummer Night's Dream is the only opera for which Britten (with Peter Pears) wrote the libretto himself. It is a remarkably authentic libretto. To avoid 'an opera as long as the Ring,'3 he and Pears, workingprimarily from facsimiles ofthe first quarto and first folio, shorten the play by about half. Of what remains, only one line is not Shakespeare's - 'Compelling thee to marry with Demetrius' - an addition UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 51, NUMBER 2, WINTER 198112 necessitated by the librettists' excision of Egeus and the opening scene in Theseus's court. In choosing A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, as the basis for the opera to open the reconstructed AJdeburgh Jubilee Hall, Britten compounded the problem of setting Shakespeare's own words.4 For not only does the play contain so many lines that are very familiar indeed, but it is a work in which music has a crucial role. Besides being necessary for the Fairies' songs, Bottom's song, Oberon and Tytania's dance, and the mechanicals' Bergomask, musicis oneofthe importantimages of the play, contributing greatly to its lyrical effect. And this is one reason why from the seventeenth century on it has attracted a number ofsettings- Purcell's and Mendelssohn's being the best known - whose tradition any composer wishing to set the work afresh must contend with. With AMidsummer Night's Dream, then, Britten was committing himself to fineting a distinctive musical style and structure for the play that would complement and comment upon Shakespeare's lines without ever being overwhelmed by them. But while conscious that 'one must notlet through a single ill-considered [musical] phrase because it would be matched by such great poetry: he felt undaunted by the verbal music of his text because 'its music and the music I have written for it are at two quite different levels.'s Britten's comment indicates one reason for his success: while the music mustultimately beat the service of the words, it cannotdo this unless it is strong enough to operate both independently and in conjunction with them. In AMidsummer Night's Dream Britten approaches...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 149-160
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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