When Benjamin Britten visited the Far East in 1956 and saw Juro Motomasa's fifteenth century Japanese noh play Sumidagawa, he must have sensed a resonance with his own work when he picked up on the theme of the play's 'outsider' - one of his own most often used dramatic themes - for the church parable Curlew River. Librettist William Plomer changed the setting of the play to Christianity and the East Anglian fens, and Britten incorporated aspects of the Japanese work, such as the four male singers and the unusual Noh treatment of tempo, into his music.
In Noh theatre, each actor, musician or singer practices on his own - there is no communal rehearsal. No single person sets the tempo of a performance, but it develops instead from the peformers' interactions. In Curlew River Britten attempts to recreate this feeling by dispensing with the conductor, marking in the score the places where each instrument should lead, and often having two or more groups playing simultaneously at different tempi. A special 'curlew sign' indicates that players should sustain or repeat notes until an indicated point in another group of musicians' music, and in this way, the music is resynchronised.
A mad woman and a traveller are waiting to cross the river on a ferryman's boat. The woman explains that she is searching for her missing child. As they cross the river, the traveller tells the tale of a young boy who was kidnapped and brought to the area, became sick and died. It becomes apparent that the boy in the story is the mad woman's child. Grief-stricken, she prays at the boy's grave, and in a moment of redemption, her madness is cured.
Curlew River received its first performance on 13 June 1964 at Orford Church in Suffolk, given by the English Opera Group. Peter Pears took the part of the mad woman, and Bryan Drake was the traveller.
A selection of M&V articles about Curlew River
Ensemble. A Better Fit - Wagner and Britten in the Umbrian Hills, reported by Giuseppe Pennisi
Ensemble. Deeply Moving - Britten's 'Curlew River' in Rome, experienced by Giuseppe Pennisi
A Real Find - Robert Davies made a remarkable impact when he stood in as Papageno late in the run of English Touring Opera's 'The Magic Flute'; Roderic Dunnett profiles him and celebrates the progress of other ETO cast members