• Accents of Remorse

    Arthur Maisel (see profile)
    Musical analysis, Opera
    Item Type:
    Benjamin Britten, Music analysis
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    Attempts to account for the undoubted impact of the interview chords in Billy Budd have had the unfortunate aspect of responses to a Rorschach inkblot, tending to reveal more about the respondent than the work. For many theorists, the most convincing approaches have been negative—understandably, because the chords do seem set apart in their lack of motivic reference, their lack of tonal harmonic meaning, their lack of a firm connection with the rest of the opera other than their simple “recurrence” several times in its remaining twenty-five minutes. None of these ideas are true, however. The chords are fully integrated with the harmonic organization from the very beginning and do subtly suggest at least two important motives that are themselves part of the elaborate network formed by most of the opera’s other motives. To speak accurately, the chords don’t even recur so much as sink below the surface and re-emerge. Nor are the widespread misreadings only a theoretical issue; a proper understanding of the drama surely requires a proper understanding of the musical matter. Britten, whether deliberately or intuitively, composed the opera in a freely atonal language, whose many triads have misled analysts to focus on key relationships, such as the putative B-flat major versus B minor of the Prelude. He was a traditionalist in his practice of “composing out” a harmonic structure, but in Billy Budd, this structure is anything but traditional, for it involves the division of the twelve tones into two mutually exclusive six-note collections.
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago


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