Composing the Sea

A Scene from Britten’s Death in Venice

It may seem strange to focus on Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice in talking about how he composed his seascapes; after all, he returned to the subject many times throughout his career – perhaps more than any other composer – and often treated it more directly than in the example I have chosen. Yet I have focussed on one very concise moment, within a single scene of his last opera, partly because it shows how precise and concentrated Britten’s tone-painting could be, at the height of his powers as a composer. In this last major work of his, he achieved a remarkable economy and purity of style which befitted his subject perfectly.

Death in Venice is the story of an aged, deeply conservative writer who is unexpectedly captivated by the beauty of a young boy – obsessing over this image of a purity and innocence which he feels himself to have lost. In the particular scene I have chosen to examine, the writer – Gustav von Aschenbach – has arrived at his hotel in Venice, suffering from writer’s block and taking a holiday to compensate for it. The obsequious hotel-manager shows him to his rooms and he is dazzled by their magnificent views of the sea.

Link to the scene:

One of the first things that may strike us here is Britten’s use of instrumentation. He employs rather a full texture, emphasising the reeded, woodwind instruments – a choice which seems strangely apt for evoking a seascape. It is all the more striking following the relatively sparse, brass accompaniment that preceded this moment in the score. The peculiar sound of single-reed woodwind instruments is due to the relative strength of certain partials or overtones from their timbre. With certain other instruments these overtones map out the ‘harmonic series’, with every other number in the series replicating the pitch-identity of the fundamental. We can imagine the sense of thickening this gives to the sound by imagining two voices singing in octaves – doubling the fundamental note at a higher pitch. These doubling tones are weaker in the sound-spectrum of the single-reeded woodwinds, giving rise to their particularly transparent sound. In fact, the tone sounds somewhat like the cry of seagulls when employed in its higher registers, which can’t have escaped Britten’s notice. This family of wind instruments has been used to mimic bird-calls for a long time prior to him. Underneath this texture in the orchestra, he uses the lower strings to evoke the sense of suddenly shifting winds and waves. These deeper tones ground the woodwinds in the earth, so to speak, and by encompassing such a wide range of pitch, the texture emphasises the sense of great spaciousness and height to the protagonist’s view of the sea.

The modulations, taking over so sharply from one another, give an immediate sense of expansion and spaciousness, perfectly capturing the sense of a vista unfolding before our eyes. It is the same “trick” that Wagner used in his Tristan und Isolde, to create what he called his ‘endless melody’, which continues to unfurl without ever seeming to reach a limit or a cadence. It is such modulations which, for the composer, enable him to give his work a sense of infinity. This works so well for Britten’s seascapes because the sea itself is an image of the infinite – an amorphous mass of seething potential and chaos.

In Britten’s case, I wonder if the suddenness of the modulations (which is somewhat unavoidable, like a change in gears) helps to maintain the illusion of seeing – by a strange correspondence between the way our eyes focus at various ranges of depth, and seldom move smoothly, but leap about, changing our perceptions almost instantaneously. Film-makers tend to capture this sense of a shifting gaze by using cuts between different shots. The comparable technique for a composer must be a kind of modulation – for somehow our sense of tonality corresponds to a sense of space, if only because it forms the natural complement to the temporal dimension of music.

Each key-centre is like a ‘flat’ in a stage set, or a point of depth at which the eye focusses. By shifting between these, Britten creates a sense of being dazzled by a view – hastily trying to drink it in in its totality. This is, of course, impossible, given the limits of our human nature, and the relative sense by which we are observers of the world. Yet the quickening of pace that these modulations accomplish mimics the quickening of the heart and the rapid movements of the eyes by which we feel we are immersing ourself in a sight of particular beauty and magnitude.

Rhythm, too, is vital in achieving this effect. The shifting syncopations of this moment, particularly in the low strings, make us feel as if we are finding our sea-legs, wobbling on uncertain ground. They displace the sense of stability which had been subliminally drilled into us in the preceding brass sections of the score, and give a sense of dizziness – as if in looking at the sea we have lost our connection to solidity and stability.

The melodic contours of the woodwinds also mimic the rolling of the waves – rising and falling in a quasi-sequential pattern, with one taking over from the other just as the seething water never comes to rest. The forceful, double-reeded oboes alternate with the whiter sound of the flutes, and the transparent timbre of the clarinets.

These techniques are used in combination at various points throughout the opera, to create a similar atmosphere – but in this case the effect is at its most concentrated. Language falls short when attempting to describe or analyse this music, even when resorting to analogies with sight and other senses – but it really has the capacity to transcend all mere sensory experience, and to stimulate the soul as only music can. It is as if Britten is able to bring out some vital truth about the sea that is communicable only in music.

Header Picture by Frank McKenna on Unsplash


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