17 JANUARY 1964, Page 19

Billy Budd


Comparisons between revisions and originals are always difficult, and never mind about masterpieces: so long as the different versions are a master's pieces, the revision is bound to lose as well as gain. Basil Lam has recently shown how, in some respects, Leonora is a work in its own right which Fidelio cannot altogether replace, and when we compare the ten different versions of one or the other Bruckner sym- phony, we come to understand such realistic conductors as Furtwangler, who made himself an eleventh version in an attempt to have it ten ways at once.

With Billy Budd, fortunately, the problem is not quite so disturbing, aid if the critics had informed themselves about the facts in the first place they might have saved themselves a great deal of worry. For what they call the original version is not, strictly speaking, the original version; and what they call the revised version 1s—in the most important respect—the original.

Originally, that is to say, the opera had been Planned in two acts, no doubt for practical reasons. Then, no doubt for practical reasons, It was changed into four; and finally, for prac- tical reasons, it was changed back into two. (Any set of artistic motives can be guaranteed to produce practical reasons, so long as the creator is a practical person.) The big finale for the end of the first act, which proved necessary in the four-act version and which has now vanished, was the only scene that was not taken from Melville, for whose story, otherwise, the librettists (E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier) had shown the deep- est respect. They had never felt altogether happy about the addition; and Britten, in his turn, had worried about this scene for many years, and it was the fact of [the] broadcast performance [of 1960] which impelled me . . . well, made Inc suggest omitting this scene. . . . I had always Wanted to go back to the two-act form, and this gave one the chance of re-thinking that scene. . . .' (The quotation is from an unscripted Third Programme broadcast in which the com- poser and the librettists took part.) Whatever our objections to the omission of Captain Vere's address to the ship's company, then, we have to realise that the present form of the work is a first and third thought, not a second. .I myself have to admit that at the time of the broadcast transmissions of the present version (1960-61), I still yearned for the first version, partly because I felt the loss of a good deal of good music, partly—and more crudely— because I had grown used to the four-act ver- sion, which I had come to know intimately. (How difficult some critics and musicologists find it to confess to this kind of Pavlovian motivation, though none of us is able to escape it altogether!) But now, having studied the score and—more important—heard and seen the impressive re- vival at the Garden, I have no more doubts. True, there is some loss in the gain, but the gain is overwhelming. The contraction results in a proportionate increase of expressive ten- sion which makes the musico-dramatic duration of these two long acts (over one hour and fifteen minutes, and one hour and ten minutes respectively) •unbelievably short: I have never experienced a more convincing discrepancy between 'lived' time and the clock. In short, it works.

Old operas are discussed in terms of their music, new operas in terms of their librettos: just imagine an article on the libretto of the Enifiihrung or, with intermittent respect, of The Magic Flute. Not even Don Giovanni would get away with it, what with the end turning into a fairy tale introducing a diabolos ex machina. The transition to text-consciousness has been gradual: the romantics were more literary- minded than the classics, while, by the time of Gloriana, an opera is judged as a failure on the basis of a libretto which, at its worst, is ten times better than that of ldomeneo. The whole development is one of musical insecurity— on the part of composers because of the loss of a general language, and on the part of the audiences because of the parallel loss of musical understanding: today, contemporary music is more difficult to understand than ever before, which even makes people interested in music who can't understand any music anyway. In Mozart's time, there was no unmusical music- lover; today, we even get unmusical composers.

The trouble is that even you and 1, though being wonderfully musical, are caught up in this situation: composers intellectualise audi- ences and audiences intellectualise composers in a vicious circle, both parties hanging on to the text as nobody ever did before, except for Zelter setting Goethe to what Goethe thought was music.

I wonder whether at a previous stage in our operatic history, the question whether Billy Budd or Captain Vere was the main character of the opera would have occurred to anyone— a question which, as E. M. Forster said in the above-mentioned broadcast, has become 'one of those discussion subjects.' It is illuminating that, instinctively, Forster thinks of Billy before he thinks 'of anything else,' whereas Britten con- fesses that when he first came to the subject, the quality that attracted him most `was this terrific conflict in Vere's mind, between his duty and the Articles of War, and what he really believed to be his conscience.' The musician cannot do without internal conflict and the simultaneous expression of opposite emotions: dramatically, the conflict-less operatic heroes always had to abdicate in favour of their more complex father-figures—Siegfried in favour of Wotan, Stolzing in favour of Sachs—whatever their creator may have intended to begin with. In fact, without `this terrific conflict in Vere's mind,' Billy Budd's basic harmonic conflict—that between B flat major and B minor, announced within a bar and resolved at the end of the work—could never have been developed.

If we must discuss librettos, then, let us at least make sure that they are taken for what they are: integrated programme notes for the musical drama. This, says the composer, point- ing to the text, is what I am talking about. There are no weak librettos, there are only un- suitable ones--unsuitable for a particular corn- poser. Or, to put it differently, librettos are strong after the event. The reading of operatic texts without the score ought to be prohibited by aesthetic law. The ,main objection to 'what has been called the 'damaging cut' of the first- act finale is that without it, in the words of one critic, the figure of 'Vere is diminished and the whole shape of the drama is thrown out of focus.' Without the music, this would be true: Billy's devotion to Vere would remain un- explained. What the music explains you have to hear for yourself.