January 14, 2018

Nighty-night: Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

“I love the silent hour of night, For blissful dreams may then arise, Revealing to my charmed sight What may not bless my waking eyes.” (Anne Brontë)

“And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow's eye, Steal me awhile from mine own company.” (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

“Dreaming gives a chance for your subconscious mind to work when your conscious mind is happily asleep. If I don’t sleep, I find that in the morning I am unprepared for my next day’s work… but dreams release many things which one thinks had better not be released.” (Benjamin Britten)

"Asleep" (Rupert Bunny)
Benjamin Britten joked that he chose Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the 1960
Aldeburgh Festival because it came with a ready-made libretto. It's funny because, in reality, transforming an Elizabethan play into a workable libretto is a complex task.

The truth is that, given Britten's track record of subject material, Midsummer was an entirely predictable choice; one that fit him to a T. Browse through the composer's catalogue of recent works, and one theme stands out:

The night.

Night time, with its companion themes of sleep and dreams, appears to have occupied a position somewhere between fascination and obsession with Benjamin Britten. Midsummer is the fourth major work written within a handful of years to deal with the subject, the other three being:
  • The Serenade, Op. 31 for tenor, horn and strings (1943). This is a cycle of six poems dealing with both romantic and disturbing aspects of the night by prominent British poets, framed by a prologue and epilogue for solo horn. The finale, a setting of an ode by Keats, clearly relates sleep with death, as indicated in the opening lines:
O soft embalmer of the still midnight! Shutting with careful fingers and benign Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light, Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;

  • The opera The Turn of the Screw (1954) is a ghost story about a malevolent spirit, Peter Quint, who strives to possess the soul of a child named Miles. At one point, Quint calls out to Miles:

I am the hidden life that stirs
When the candle is out;
Upstairs and down, the footsteps
barely heard.
The unknown gesture, and the soft,
persistent word,
The long sighing light of the
night-winged bird.

  • Britten's Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) is another song-cycle for tenor voice with chamber instrumental accompaniment. Like the Serenade, it consists of settings of poems by distinguished British poets exploring the by-now familiar theme of nocturnal musings. It ends with a sonnet of Shakespeare full of yearning and desire:
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Britten's leanings toward night time, sleep and dreams affects his approach to the play. He dispenses with Shakespeare's first act, the scenes in which we meet the three groups of human characters (nobles, lovers and tradesmen) in the "wide-awake" real world of Athens. Instead, the composer chooses to have the curtain rise on those supernatural beings who dispense spells while we sleep, the fairies. Last to appear in the play,. Oberon, Tytania and their fairy retinue are the first on stage in the opera; we are immediately plunged into the eerily sleepy ambience of the woods, where drowsy young people hide from reality to resolve their various issues and conflicts.

This is where our idiom "Let me sleep on it" comes from; as Benjamin Britten posits in his quote at the top of this post, sleep is where our subconscious continues to work on our problems while we yield to the so-called REM stage of deep sleep. We've all experienced it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is an amusing object lesson on the mysterious curative and healing powers of sleep.

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