Come Heavy Sleep: motive and metaphor in Britten’s Nocturnal, opus 70
Author: Stephen Goss
24 pages, 17 musical examples, bibliography
The prevailing melancholy [of Britten’s Nocturnal] is as natural to the guitar’s sonorities as it is appropriate in a tribute to John Dowland.
Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten (London: Dent, 1979), p 333.
Such summary remarks characterise what little has been written about Britten’s Nocturnal. The reader’s reaction might be one of passive agreement or mild irritation, but there is rarely dialogue because there is limited discourse: Nocturnal after John Dowland is often passed over by Britten scholars with scant discussion or no mention at all. Certainly, little has been added to Evans’ reliable commentary, written only three years after Britten’s death. Are these scholars, one asks, ignoring the music or the medium?
For all its expediency, Evans’ remark begs a number of fruitful questions. In how many senses, then, is Britten’s work after John Dowland? How is Nocturnal melancholic? – in fact, what are the constructs of melancholy in music in general and in the music of Britten and Dowland in particular? And how may we locate the sonority of the guitar in the discourse?
The starting point for the answers is well known. Nocturnal is a set of variations on Dowland’s lutesong ‘Come, heavy Sleep’, delaying literal statement of the theme until the end to give what might be called reverse variation form. Its numbered sections are non-tonal but otherwise rather faithful to the structure and motivic material of the song. The surface workings of Britten’s variation technique are clear enough, I feel, that it is not my intention to give a detailed account of them here. Moreover, Britten’s reluctance to specify the genre in his title – the work is not called Variations on ‘Come, heavy Sleep’ – points to other driving forces in this music, and additional relationships between the lutesong and the preceding sections.
In this article, then, I intend to examine melancholy as a topic (the topos of classical rhetoric), suggesting that it saturates the score of Nocturnal at every structural level. I shall refer to several of the movements of Nocturnal, but the focus of my argument will be a detailed comparison between the opening variation, Musingly, and Britten’s transcription of Dowland’s song, ‘Come, heavy Sleep’, that appears on the final page of the score. I shall search for motivic coherence beneath the surface of the music, and attempt to display melancholic motivic archetypes working at several levels of compositional organisation in Musingly. In the last two sections I turn to the implications of the reverse variation form, and attempt to define how two independent idioms – Dowland’s, the guitar’s – become identified with Britten’s. For it is one of the unique achievements of this masterpiece that neither idiom is pushed into the background. On the contrary: the more nakedly they are disclosed in the music – the quotation of an entire song, a chord on the open strings – the more movingly are we made aware that it is Britten’s hand that strikes the open strings, and Britten’s voice that sings Dowland to us