I want to look at a particular passage from Benjamin Britten’s great opera, Billy Budd, to see how we can learn from his orchestral writing. Billy Budd is a truly masterful work, and really rewards repeated listening; I recommend especially the 1966 BBC production that is, at least currently, available on YouTube, if you’re new to the piece and want to check it out. In choosing to examine a scene from the first act, I’ll be focussing on just a few points that struck my interest when looking at the score.
Combined with his use of motivic variation, Britten’s writing is so seamless that it’s sometimes hard to find a clean break in the score to establish where a section starts or ends. The chief, narrative function of this passage is to create a smooth transition from the scene in Captain Vere’s chambers – a meeting between the officers – to the chorus of sailors singing below decks. It is perhaps the unique capacity of music to make us feel a natural, organic flow from one state to the other, which Britten establishes at first by having the sea shanty spilling over into the Captain’s quarters, having snatches of melody heard in the distance. More than serving a formal function, it also creates a sense of claustrophobia, as we recall that all the action is taking place aboard this single ship.
The central thematic or motivic idea in this section – the sea-shanty – is cleverly constructed out of these interlocking thirds, in part so that it can effect a smooth shift in the tonality. Thirds are very useful for establishing a sense of harmony without a clear tonal centre – in the absence of the fifth to complete the triad they are tonally ambiguous.
If, like me, you’re an amateur composer, you may find it refreshing to see that what sounds like a very full texture (and which is full orchestrally) actually consists in some relatively simple, two-part counterpoint. Clearly you don’t need an excess of motivic material and a vast store of melodic ideas to create a truly epic musical climax, such as we hear in this scene.
One reason this two-part counterpoint works so well is that the melodic movement alternates between the parts – while one is largely static, the other is more mobile – so that it has a rolling motion and a momentum that carries it forward. This kind of two-part writing for orchestra is something that can be heard really well in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, especially in the famous prelude.
It also shows that what makes great orchestral writing is not necessarily complexity in all aspects, but very often simplicity and clarity of writing. It serves as a reminder that, unless you’re going for a specific style or effect, in which case you need to know very well what you’re doing, you want to avoid textures that are indistinct or murky. This is painting with a broad brushstroke, which matches the scale of the work and the mood which is being evoked in this case.
The way those big chords phase in and out in the brass and woodwind here and there with hair-pin dynamics, or a roll of the timpani, is really suggestive of waves crashing against the ship, and helps to generate that sense of forward momentum over what is a highly repetitive interplay between the tenor and bass singers. The constant repetition of these interlocking motifs is something I think Wagner, again, took to an extreme in his orchestral writing to create a sense of insistence and mounting excitement. The repetition is relentless in this scene, which contributes a great deal to how overwhelming a climax it is, in the most positive sense of the word.
If Britten hadn’t forecasted the motifs that make up the sea-shanty with those earlier fragments heard in the Captain’s quarters, we wouldn’t find the final appearance of the full “theme” so rewarding and climactic. This is a crucial point about any kind of large-scale composition, and why motifs and fragmentation of melody is so prevalent in great compositions.
Imagine how jarring, and how awkward it would have been if Britten had cut straight from the Captain’s quarters to the chorus of sailors singing the full sea-shanty. It would completely deaden the impact of one of the highest moments in the opera. It’s such a simple thing, but it helps to remember how important it is to build up to these big moments and to prepare the listener, even on a subconscious level, for what they’re about to hear.
Now it’s clear that Britten falls more on the tonal side of the spectrum, when it comes to 20th century composers, but he certainly made extensive use of atonality and modernist harmony. In this example the use of tone centres enables Britten to build a sense of tension and release in the harmony, whilst giving him the flexibility to move seamlessly from one key to another.
Characteristic of his harmony in this extract, as elsewhere, is a use of extended chords – sevenths, ninths and other added, diatonic notes. The use of these notes creates tone-clusters, like a kind of aura or halo around a chord or a particular pivotal tone. Many times these tone-clusters do not have a clear fundamental, so that Britten’s style branches away from triadic harmony, but we seldom lose a sense of the overarching tonal landscape for a continuous period of time. Particularly in the more ritornello-like passages in this section, he creates a sense of tonality through insistent repetition of the chords in the accompaniment.