As we celebrate today the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville’s birth, let us consider the finest piece of music to have been inspired by the American master: the opera Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten.
When Melville began work on the novella Billy Budd, Sailor—an endeavor that would absorb him for the last several years of his life—his literary star had long since faded. Having abandoned novels for poetry, Melville returned not only to fiction but also to the subject of the sea, which had figured so prominently in his earlier books. Unfinished at the time of the writer’s death in 1891, Billy Budd, Sailor tells the story of youthful, starry-eyed Billy, conscripted onto the crew of the naval warship Bellipotent in the year 1797. As physically imposing as he is handsome—he is likened to a sculptural figure of classical beauty, a boyish Hercules of the seas—Billy is committed, above all else, to duty. Abidingly loyal to his new captain, he is accepted and admired by nearly all of his new mates, though not by the ship’s master-in-arms, John Claggart, whose loathing seems to have its roots in an intense erotic longing for him. When Claggart accuses him of mutinous treachery, Billy is unable to defend himself—due to the severe stutter that is his only flaw—and he ends up striking Claggart, unwittingly killing him. Captain Vere calls for a court martial, and though the adjudicators are sympathetic to Billy’s plight, well aware of the false accusation that Claggart had brought against him, the captain reminds them that they must act according to the dictates of martial law. Thus is Billy found guilty and put to death.
Britten’s musical version of this tale is a powerful and emotional work in the grand operatic tradition— the orchestral writing rich, the ensembles expertly developed, the musical gestures expansive and bold. Britten originally conceived of Billy Budd as an opera in four acts (it was premiered in that form in 1951), though he later reworked the piece, reducing it to two acts framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The nautical setting appealed to the composer of Peter Grimes, saturated as that earlier opera was with haunting evocations of the sea, but the erotic subtext held a secondary allure—and not just to Britten, but also to E. M. Forster, who co-wrote the libretto with Eric Crozier. To produce such an opera, with its all-male cast, at that particular time, was almost an act of defiance. After all, until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, homosexuality in England and Wales had yet to be decriminalized.
During the three years that Billy Budd took shape, Britten and Forster occasionally disagreed about just how brazen the piece should be. In one instance, Forster complained that one of Claggart’s arias was just not hot-blooded enough. “I want passion—love constricted, perverted, poisoned, but nevertheless flowing down its agonising channel; a sexual discharge gone evil,” Forster wrote. “Not soggy depression or growling remorse.” Britten—who had largely been circumspect about his own homosexuality, publicly avoiding the subject of his long relationship with the tenor Peter Pears—strongly disagreed, and as a consequence, a rift opened up between librettist and composer, the one a daring idealist, the other a more cautious realist.
For the most part, Billy Budd faithfully adheres to Melville’s story, though it differs from the novella in a few prominent ways. One of these has to do with the character of Captain Vere, a prudent, intelligent figure in the novella who ultimately condemns Billy despite his paternal fondness for him. Both Britten and Forster found Melville’s Vere to be lacking in humanity and depth, and they were especially unsatisfied with the captain’s behavior at the trial. (I would argue that the duty-bound Vere had no choice but to condemn Billy, what with the action taking place in the aftermath of the Spithead and Nore mutinies of 1797—a precarious time upon the seas elaborated on at some length by Melville. The floating world of the Bellipotent, governed by its own rules and codes of conduct, would have had no room for moral nuance or sympathy, not with mutiny so prevalent in the air, when even the slightest breach of discipline or order could have had anarchic consequences.) At any rate, Britten turned Captain Vere into a central character—arguably the central character, given that he sings both the prologue and epilogue—and a far more sexualized one at that.
Another divergence occurs in the crucial scene following Billy’s trial. Melville portrays his hero shackled on the upper gun deck of the Bellipotent, under the watch of a sentry and surrounded by the armaments of war, the guns and carriages all painted black—even the cannon’s breeching rope is “tarred to the same tint.” In stark contrast to this funereal setting is Billy himself, in his “white jumper and white duck trousers … already in his shroud, or the garments that shall serve him in lieu of one.” Shrouded like Jesus (this parallel is underscored in the subsequent death scene, when the hanging takes place on the ship’s cruciform yardarm), Billy feels no tension or agony. He has accepted his fate with seraphic innocence, like one who does not belong to the earthly realm, and who cannot be tainted by the corrupt ways of man. Even the chaplain, visiting the prisoner on the gun deck, “had no consolation to proffer which could result in a peace transcending that which he beheld.” Melville describes Billy’s response to the chaplain’s message of salvation with one of his most poignant lines: “It was like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close.”
All of this is narrated without dialogue; we glimpse Billy’s interior world only via the mediating presence of the narrator. Britten, however, recasts the scene into one of the most splendid baritone arias in the entire repertoire, with Billy revealing the depths of his soul and his fears about what’s to come. The melancholy orchestral introduction, with its gentle triplets suggesting an almost imperceptible motion of the ship upon the ocean, is punctuated with a beguiling figure played by the piccolo—quiet and darting and strange—that will reappear in various guises throughout the aria. There is so much beauty in Billy’s utterance, such simplicity in the recognition of his fate:
Through the port comes the moonshine astray!
It tips the guard’s cutlass and silvers this nook;
But ’twill die in the dawning of Billy’s last day.
In Melville, the luminous night is only apparent on the spar deck, located above the gun deck where Billy is chained. In Britten, the scene is more radiant, less claustrophobic, the beneficence of the natural world touching upon the soul of the condemned.
The musical line rises up as Billy imagines his death, and though the sung line is exquisite and tender, the piccolo provides a disquieting rejoinder, as if communicating all the despair and nervousness that the purity of the baritone line will not allow. (No trace of a stammer now, but rather, a clean and mellifluous declamation.) Singing of his empty stomach, Billy hopes that someone will offer him a bite to eat and a final drink, with the musical lines sounding like desperate prayers, the piccolo response now faster, more unsettled. As if to match this change in mood, the phrasing becomes more breathless in the lines, “But ain’t it all a sham? / A blur’s in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.” Billy thinks of the camaraderie he will feel toward his shipmates right until the end (“But Donald he has promised to stand by the plank; / So I’ll shake a friendly hand ere I sink”), and as he imagines his dead body being hurled into the depths of the seas, he conjures up in his mind visions of the vast sleep before him:
I feel it stealing now.
Roll me over fair!
I am sleepy, and the oozy weeds about me twist.
That final line ascends to a brief but devastating harmony on the word oozy, before Billy falls silent, leaving the piccolo with the final word. Whatever that piccolo is meant to represent—it flutters with harmonic uncertainty throughout, providing a kind of commentary on the sung line that is at once earnest and ironic—it gives this nocturne an unexpected depth. And it further helps differentiate Melville’s Billy Budd from Britten’s. If the former is a godlike creature, rising above the tar and taint of the physical world, the latter is messy and complex and altogether human until the end.
Listen to Simon Keenlyside sing “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray!” from Act 2 Scene 3 of Britten’s Billy Budd, with Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra:
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