Dramatic Song Cycle in Nine Scenes
For Tenor Solo, Horn and Strings
I: Prologue—The Many-sided Man
II: The End of the World
III: The Answer of the Sea
IV: A Letter From an R.A.F. Pilot-Officer, Age 19
V: What to Say, and What Not to Say
VI: Love Song in Time of War
VII: The Unfathomable Deep
VIII: More Lives Than One
IX: Epilogue—Now Voyager
Duration ca. 29’
The Trial of Benjamin Britten is a dramatic song cycle which takes place inside the mind of Benjamin Britten during his May 28, 1942 Conscientious Objector hearing before the Military Service Tribunal in London. On that occasion and a subsequent appeal, Britten was on trial publicly, testifying and offering witnesses in support of his petition to be a Conscientious Objector during World War II, with an uncertain outcome that could have resulted in Britten choosing prison over accepting the judgment of the Tribunal.
Britten was also deeply aware of another reason for possible public condemnation in the Britain of the 1940’s, arising from his personal relationship with his muse, tenor Peter Pears. During most of Britten’s lifetime, such relationships were illegal, and indeed the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde had in 1895 famously been convicted of such “criminal acts,” imprisoned, and died not long after.
As Britten stood before the Tribunal that day, it was also the culmination of a three year odyssey in the United States, which began in Spring, 1939, which resulted in Britten being safely “stranded” in the United States as war broke out in Europe. During his American odyssey Britten considered remaining in the United States, perhaps following the example of his friend and mentor the poet W.H. Auden. After sojourns in Canada, New York (in Auden’s notorious “Bohemian” Brooklyn apartment) and on Long Island, Britten and Pears continued westward and drove three thousand miles across the continent to spend several months with friends and colleagues in the hot and dry summer of 1941 climate of southern California, in Escondido near the Pacific Ocean where they could “pick oranges off the tree for breakfast” and were enthusiastic beach goers, swimming in the sun-drenched Pacific and comparing its waters to the Atlantic.
The location was between Los Angeles and San Diego and therefore also a practical location because Britten was ambivalently considering a career change to Hollywood film composing. He hired an agent and attended at least one meeting in Hollywood with a producer. In Britten’s letters the pursuit of film music fame and fortune sounds more like a fantasy he knew would not come to pass, and indeed his letters were filled with sharp-witted contempt for all things Hollywood and Los Angeles (which he described as the “exhaust pipe” of America). At the same time he was taking his escape from Europe to its farthest possible extent, the “end of the world” where Western Culture reaches its geographic end at America’s west coast. It was there, at the “end of the world,” that Britten found himself and what he needed to be, and to become.
The key moment was in an antiquary book shop (it may indeed have been the famous “Pickwick Books” on Hollywood Boulevard), where Peter Pears found a volume of the relatively obscure book-length poem from 1810, “The Borough” by George Crabbe. Crabbe was an English poet from the same Suffolk North Sea coast as Britten, and his long poem included the tragic story of the solitary outcast Aldeburgh fisherman Peter Grimes. Finding a way to tell Grimes’ story as an opera became the key to Britten’s spiritual and geographic return home. The Odyssey finally concluded when Britten and Pears sailed home on a fearfully dangerous return voyage across the U-Boat patrolled North Atlantic in 1942, to face the Military Tribunal and an uncertain future precisely at the moment when Britten had found his own artistic and life meaning.
The Trial of Benjamin Britten is a “flashback” in Britten’s mind during the Tribunal hearing in nine scenes including a Prologue and Epilogue. As the trial takes place and brings to a head several years of soul-searching inner anxiety and conflict, Britten’s mind is only partly “there” in the hearing room, and his well-rehearsed public testimony is indeed a performance of a kind. While testifying, inside his mind he conjures up his own private world in the one way he best knew: carefully selected poetry that when set to music is transformed into a dramatic arc that expresses his true inner self as he recalls key moments in his life-changing American Odyssey.
In this work, Benjamin Britten is a dramatic musical character who happens to be a composer, and we experience the music he creates in his mind during his trial. While the main character sung by the tenor is indeed Benjamin Britten, the tenor also becomes the nameless Chorus in the Prologue and Epilogue, and during Scene IV the tenor begins as Britten reading the letter aloud, but then becomes the author of the letter as well.
The unusual scoring of Britten’s contemporaneous 1943 Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings is used in this work, not to imitate Britten’s musical style, but to evoke Britten’s persona and to comment upon it in the same way that in the Serenade, the horn solo becomes a “character” as well that comments on the tenor and the text, and in turn, expresses the composer’s innermost feelings. Here, the poems and texts were selected as vehicles to express the dramatic arc following Britten’s conceptual example of how to structure poems into a dramatic narrative. Although the poems sung here are sometimes heavily edited for dramatic purposes, the original unedited poems are provided in the Appendix to these notes to aid in their interpretation and understanding.
NOTES ON THE SCENES:
Scene I – “Prologue – The Many-Sided Man”: The prologue sets the introductory words of Homer’s Odyssey, in which a nameless Chorus describes Odysseus as the “many-sided man” and the “wanderer” who suffered “many woes” in his voyages upon the sea, a metaphor for Britten’s own odyssey.
Scene II - The End of the World. In this scene, Britten stands before the Military Service Tribunal and takes the oath as he begins his testimony (“I solemnly swear…”). Britten testifies about his voyage to America, to the “end of the world” where he tried “to find myself,” then describes his personal pacifist beliefs. The first part of the testimony is imagined, but the latter testimony regarding Britten’s pacifist beliefs is partly taken from Britten’s actual prepared statement at his first Military Tribunal hearing (there was also a later, successful, appeal).
Scene III - The Answer of the Sea. In this scene Britten reflects on the reasons for his pre-war departure from England upon his voyage of self-discovery. The text is from the poem Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold, which closely parallels Britten’s mind set at the time, “Weary with myself and sick of asking What I am” the text describes a solitary Odysseus-inspired voyage at sea seeking the answer to life’s deepest questions, concluding that “He who finds himself, loses his misery.”
Scene IV - “A Letter to the Musical Times from an RAF Pilot-Officer Age 19”: Britten’s absence from England as war broke out was a matter of some public comment, some in support, and some comment hinting at cowardice, betrayal, and perhaps also with some veiled condemnation of his personal life style. One letter, written to The Musical Times of London and published in June 1941 under the heading “English Composer Goes West” was written by a young RAF officer who was apparently well-informed regarding Britten’s music, whereabouts, and performances. While we don’t know if Britten ever read the letter, in this scene he reads it aloud. This scene includes optional stage directions: a prop sheet of newsprint is suggested to clarify it is Britten reading someone else’s letter about him. As the letter continues however we hear both Britten’s vitriol at the letter, but also we hear the voice of the letter’s author, Pilot-Officer Lewis, in effect combining the two persona. The pacifist composer and the RAF Pilot Officer have much in common as both their lives are at risk in different ways. The letter to the Musical Times was signed by “Pilot Officer E.R. Lewis.” Based on currently available online research, the author was Pilot Officer Eric Russell Lewis, a young officer from Australia, born in Adelaide on June 15, 1922, and serving with the RAF ultimately as a Spitfire pilot. Lewis appears to have also been a keen observer of the British music scene including concerts and B.B.C. broadcasts, and very aware of Britten’s music and performances. In March 1944 Lewis was on a mission over France against an enemy airfield when his Spitfire was shot down. He was severely injured and became a POW at Luft Stalag 1 until liberation by the Soviet Army in May, 1945. Please also see <https://aircrewremembered.com/lewis-eric-russell.html> (Any additional or corrective information on Pilot Officer Lewis would be welcome).
Scene V - “What to Say, and What Not to Say”: Aware that he has become the subject of some public condemnation and controversy, Britten identifies his plight with that of Peter Grimes, singing an actual passage from Crabbe’s poem The Borough describing the ostracism of Grimes from society as an alleged (and perhaps falsely accused) criminal: “His crimes they could not from their memories blot, But they were grieved, and trembled at his lot.” Then Britten’s concern for Peter Pears as also a victim of condemnation emerges. Pears was due to have his own trial and hearing soon after Britten’s, and Britten wrote to a friend that he needed to advise Peter on what to say, and what not to say at his hearing. “What to say and what not to say” conflates Britten, Pears, and Grimes as outsiders who must be cautious in what they do and say, adding to the mix Britten’s fears about their personal lifestyle becoming public knowledge and condemned along with their pacifist beliefs in war time.
Scene VI - “Love Song in Time of War”: Britten’s concern for Peter evokes deep emotions: he thinks of their love in a time of war. The text is taken from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach which begins as an impassioned love poem in the moonlight by the sea in the night air, then darkly drifts into musings of the Dover coastal plain as a dark nightmarish place where love and light and joy and peace have fled, leaving only struggling armies that “clash by night.”
Scene VII - “The Unfathomable Deep”: As Britten’s mind descends from his vision of night and love into the darkness of war and its destruction of personal relationships, he ponders death. The text is from the poem Lights Out by Edward Thomas, an English poet killed in World War I in 1917. Lights Out is a poem about death: the dark forest, the end of love, despair, and ambition, where all must “lose their way” and themselves.
Scene VIII - “More Lives Than One”: Britten now reflects upon his own peril and the consequences of being a C.O. (and potentially a “criminal” for his personal lifestyle) in a time of war. The short text is from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, written shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, and, like Britten, contemplating the pain of someone who lives “more lives than one” and who must metaphorically die more than one death. The lines Britten sets to music in his mind reflect back on and vary music from previous scenes, as he grapples with the sacrifices he must make as the music suggests his acceptance of life as the “many-sided man.”
Scene IX – “Epilogue: Now Voyager”: Having reached the deepest and darkest places in his subconscious during his testimony, Britten’s mind returns to the present day and time and the trial location. But having undergone the catharsis of trial and internal reflection he is no longer the same person as when his “voyage” began three years ago. Although he walks out the door a “free” man, he is determined, and inspired, to bravely continue his voyage of creation and love, never to return to the port of his voyage’s departure. As in the Prologue, a nameless “chorus” sings, now with words about the courage to undertake new voyages where “much for thee is yet in store.” The text is slightly edited poems by Walt Whitman from the Songs of Parting section of Leaves of Grass: The Untold Want and Now, Finale to the Shore.
Scene I: Prologue – The Many-Sided Man
Tell me, O Muse, of the many-sided man.
Sing me the restless man, the wanderer.
Tell me of the traveler
Who roamed, suffered many woes, Upon the sea.
From the introduction to The Odyssey by Homer [ca. 8th century B.C.E.] (public domain translations)
Scene II: The End of the World
I, Edward Benjamin Britten
Do solemnly swear
To tell the whole truth
So help me God
When this war began
And your sons were dying
I had sailed away
To the end of the world
To find myself
*Since I believe
In every man there is the spirit of God
I cannot destroy human life
The whole of my life
All my life
I cannot destroy my life.
Text by composer, then starting with * excerpted from Britten’s prepared testimony to the Military Service Tribunal for the Registration of Conscientious Objectors, May 28, 1942, London
Scene III: The Answer of the Sea
Weary of myself,
and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea.
Calm me, compose me
Feel my soul becoming vast as the vault of heaven,
O’er the sea's unquiet way,
In night-air came the answer, from the sea.
From the vault of heaven
O’er the moonlit sea
Came the answer
From the sea
He who finds himself, loses his misery.
From Self-Dependence by Matthew Arnold [1822-1888]
Scene IV: A Letter to the Musical Times from an RAF Pilot-Officer, Age 19
“Dear Sir, The favour recently shown to a young English composer now in America, has, to my knowledge, caused discontent which calls for notice. The taking of American citizenship by the “group” to which he belongs invites mockery. I must protest at the continued description of this musician as a ‘British composer’ when, by his own action, he disclaims the title. Moreover, though his work should have the same chance of performance within these shores as has other imported work, is the particular favour shown by concert-givers, particularly the B.B.C., in the best of taste?
The one justification of such prominence is overwhelming merit, and this composer’s reputation hardly fulfils that condition. Why should special favour be given to works which are not of first rank when they come from men who have avoided national service.
[Kill for him? Die for him? Sailed away? And my life? Am I not your son too?]
Why should Mister Britten thrive… on a culture …he does not have the courage to defend?”
Letter to The Musical Times from Pilot Officer E. R. Lewis published in June, 1941 under the title “English Composer Goes West.” Quoted in Letters From A Life, Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, Volume Two 1939-1945, Edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, page 870 (Footnote 2 to Britten’s letter No. 292 of October 7, 1940 addressed to his publisher Ralph Hawkes). The paragraph [in brackets] has been added by the composer for dramatization purposes.
*(Optional Stage Directions: Britten reads animatedly from a sheet of newsprint which he later crumples up in anger, but as the horn plays “The Last Post” he attempts to smooth out the newsprint as if trying to comfort the author of the letter).
Scene V: What to Say, and What Not to Say
“His crimes they could not from their memories blot,
But they were grieved, and trembled at his lot.”*
I must warn Peter what to say, and what not to say…
what to say, and what not to say… **
*From The Borough, Letter XXII “Peter Grimes”  by George Crabbe [1754-1832] **Paraphrased from Britten’s letter of June 5, 1942 to Elizabeth Mayer in which he wrote of his Tribunal experiences and with reference to Peter Pears whose Tribunal had not yet occurred “I am glad to have had the experience of it, to warn him of certain things to say or to avoid saying.” (Letters From A Life, No. 383, p. 1060).
Scene VI: Love Song in Time of War
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full,
On the French coast the light Gleams and is gone;
the cliffs of England, Glimmering and vast, in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window,
sweet is the night-air!
Where the sea meets the moon-lit land,
Ah, love, let us be true To one another!
For the world, is a land of dreams,
The world hath neither joy nor love nor light nor peace,
And we are here on a dark plain,
Swept with struggle and flight,
Where armies clash by night.
Come to the window, sweet is the night.
From Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold [1822-1888]
Scene VII: The Unfathomable Deep
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose Their way.
They cannot choose.
Here love ends,
Despair ends, ambition ends;
All pleasure and all trouble,
Ends in sleep.
The tall forest towers;
Ahead, silence I hear
That I may lose my way
From Lights Out by Edward Thomas [1878 - 1917]
Scene VIII: More Lives Than One
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.
From The Ballad of Reading Gaol  Oscar Wilde [1854-1900]
Scene IX: Epilogue: Now Voyager
The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now voyager sail forth to seek and find.
Now finale to the shore
Now, land and life, farewell!
Now Voyager depart! (much more for thee is yet in store;)
But now obey, thy cherish’d, secret wish,
Embrace thy friends—leave all in order;
Now voyager To port, no more return,
From thy endless cruise
Depart upon thy endless cruise,
From The Untold Want and Now Finale to the Shore from Leaves of Grass, Part XXXIII Songs of Parting Walt Whitman [1819-1892]
Full Score PDF on Issuu: https://issuu.com/home/published/the_trial_of_benjamin_britten_-_corey_field_-_full
MP3 Playback with Scrolling Score on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36tCHHL7Knk