About this Recording
8.660109-10 - BRITTEN: Turn of the Screw (The)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

The Turn of the Screw


On 12th January 1895 Henry James noted a ghost-story told him at Addington by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a tale of two young children left to the care of servants in an old country-house and first corrupted by them and then haunted by their ghosts. It was this story that became James’s novella The Turn of the Screw and that served Benjamin Britten as the basis of his challenging opera, written at remarkable speed in response to a commission for a new opera to be staged at the Venice Biennale. There had been considerable demands on the composer’s time. In the first place there was the composition of the coronation opera Gloriana, duly mounted at Covent Garden in 1953, and then a severe attack of bursitis in the right shoulder had made writing with the right hand impossible. In the event the new chamber opera was written in the space of four months, from March 1954, and duly staged at La Fenice in Venice on 14th September.


The original novella by Henry James, whether entirely the result of archiepiscopal anecdote or influenced by events in the writer’s own family, has puzzled many readers. As in the opera, the story is seen through the eyes of the governess, a young woman sent to take charge of two children, Miles and Flora, at Bly, a country-house in East Anglia. Angelic and seemingly perfect in behaviour, the children are soon shown to have within them elements of precocious evil, apparently the result of their corruption by the man-servant Peter Quint and their former governess, Miss Jessel, both now dead. Quint and Miss Jessel return, however, as ghosts, luring the children to evil. The problem unresolved by Henry James, but left to the imaginative speculation of the reader, lay in the question as to the reality of the ghosts and the state of mind of the new governess. In Britten’s opera the ghosts seem real enough, Quint an embodiment of evil, an interpretation which seems to accord with the composer’s own views, although this has been disputed.


The libretto for the new opera was entrusted to Myfanwy Piper, wife of the artist John Piper, who had collaborated with Britten on the décor of The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, Billy Budd and Gloriana. She worked closely with the composer, who had his own increasingly clear ideas of how the opera should be shaped. Musically the casting of the two children posed obvious problems. While finding a boy to take the part of Miles was no very great challenge, it was much more difficult to find a girl to take on the even more demanding rôle of Flora, a younger sister to Miles. In the first production, and often in later ones, it has been found necessary to cast an adult singer in the rôle. Other problems that arose for the first staging lay in the inevitably complicated lighting plot and the rapid changes of scene. In Venice, and in the first recording of the opera, the part of Quint and the Prologue was taken by Peter Pears and that of Miss Jessel by Arda Mandikian. Joan Cross, the first Ellen Orford, sang the part of Mrs Grose, the housekeeper at Bly, and Jennifer Vyvyan that of the otherwise unnamed Governess. The parts of Miles and Flora were taken by David Hemming and Olive Dyer. The work is scored for flute, doubling piccolo and alto flute, oboe, doubling cor anglais, clarinet, doubling bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, percussion, harp, piano, doubling celesta, string quartet and double bass. The miraculous and evocative use of these instruments ranges from the seemingly idyllic to the menacing, with the celesta colouring the exotic music of Quint, its harmony reflected in the use of the harp for Miss Jessel.


The musical structure of The Turn of the Screw is more than ingenious. Scenes are introduced by variations on a twelve-note theme, each on a different key centre, ascending in the first act and descending in the second. Britten, in one way, shows what tonal use may be made of a twelve-note theme, his treatment of it avoiding Schoenbergian techniques that had become increasingly fashionable among composers at the time. The theme consists of an ascending series of fourths, inverted as fifths, and much harmonic use is made of the interval of a fourth.


CD 1


The story as told by Henry James is read by a narrator, and in Britten’s opera it was decided to introduce the work with a Prologue 1, a literary device that had been used more extensively in The Rape of Lucretia and had its place in Billy Budd. This is sung by the tenor, accompanied by the piano, 2 after which the theme is announced by the piano, leading to the first scene, The Journey. The Governess, to the sound of the coach in which she is riding, is making her way to Bly, apprehensive of what she may find there and anxious to please her employer, a young man, off-hand, bold and gay, as we have been told, but with no time for his wards, left in the charge of an old housekeeper.


[3] The first variation of the theme, started by the violins and piano, based on B, a tone higher than the original theme itself, increases in excitement. In the second scene, The Welcome, Miles and Flora are excited at the arrival of their new governess, worrying Mrs Grose with their questions and practising their bows and curtseys in anticipation, as they have been taught. The Governess arrives and approaches her charges timidly. Mrs Grose has nothing but praise for the children, so clever and so lively, but too much for her.


[4] As the children lead the Governess away to show her the house, the second variation is heard, the theme, now centred on C, starting in the bassoon and double bass, a contrast with the lively scampering of the children. The screw starts to tighten with the third scene, The Letter, bringing news that Miles has been expelled from his school, described as an injury to his friends. Neither the Governess nor Mrs Grose can believe this, their view of things emphasized by the sight of the children outside, playing a singing game, Lavender’s blue. The Governess resolves to take no action, a course in which Mrs Grose supports her.


[5] The third variation, with its rhapsodic flute and centring on D, offers an air of rural serenity, in which there seems, for a moment, a latent threat. The following scene, The Tower, finds the Governess in the garden in early evening. The tower can be seen, and, not quite easy in her mind, she wishes that her employer could see how well she is doing. At this moment, to the characteristic sound of the celesta, a figure is seen on the tower, perhaps the children’s guardian, she thinks. Soon she realises this is a stranger and is alarmed.


[6] The agitation of the Governess continues in the following variation, with its repeated plucked chords, the tonal centre now E, heard from the piano and double bass. The Window, the fifth scene, is set in the hall at Bly, where Miles and Flora play with their hobby-horse, singing and acting Tom, Tom, the Piper’s son. The Governess is heard calling them, but as she comes in, they ride out. She lingers for a moment, glances at the window, and sees a strange man looking in, his presence suggested again by the celesta. She is agitated and tells Mrs Grose what she has seen, describing a man that the housekeeper recognizes as Peter Quint, the Master’s valet, a man who had been free with everyone, with little Master Miles, as well as with Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess. Both of them, she tells the Governess, are now dead: Miss Jessel went away to die, while Quint fell on the icy road, struck his head and lay there till morning. She continues to ask if there is no end to Quint and his dreadful ways. The Governess is determined to protect Miles from this evil, Mrs Grose understands nothing of this, but will support her.


[7] The fifth variation, centred on F, leads to The Lesson, in the schoolroom, where the Governess is hearing Miles recite his gender rhymes, as found in Kennedy’s Latin Primer and memorised by every schoolboy. Flora echoes Miles, making a game of it, and suggesting they do history. The Governess urges Miles to continue, at which he sings a strange song that is at the heart of the opera, a seeming mnemonic on the possible meanings of the word malo, clearly suggesting evil, a song that Miles claims he found himself and likes.


[8] Centred on G, the sixth variation has something idyllic about it, a preparation for The Lake, the seventh scene, set by the lake in the park on a sunny morning. The Governess has a book and Flora a doll, as she recalls her geography lesson, naming the lake itself as the Dead Sea, to the apprehension of the Governess, but in seeming innocence. Flora sings a lullaby to her doll. As the lullaby ends, the figure of Miss Jessel appears at the other side of the lake, clearly seen by Flora. The Governess urges Flora away, and the voice of Miles is heard calling them. Left alone, she realises that both children are in the power of these evil ghosts.


[9] The sound of the celesta suggests what is to come, the theme, centred on A flat, heard from the horn. At Night, the seventh scene, brings the seductive melismata of Quint, seen eventually on the tower, while Miles, in his night things, watches, fascinated, from the garden below. Harp clusters bring the ghost of Miss Jessel, calling Flora, who now appears at the window. The two ghosts wait for their willing prey, disappearing as the Governess appears in the porch and Mrs Grose at the window. Mrs Grose takes Flora away, while Miles confesses to the Governess that he is bad.


CD 2


[1] The second act starts with the eighth of the fifteen variations, the clarinet suggesting Quint’s seductive singing, the flute the sounds of the night, the harp Miss Jessel, and other elements the mystery and evil that lies in the place. The order of tonal centres is now inverted, starting with A flat. Colloquy and Soliloquy, set nowhere, finds Miss Jessel recriminating with Quint and offering herself as his companion. Quint, however, seeks a friend of another kind, one to corrupt, and so ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’. Miss Jessel too seeks a companion, and both join together in the words of W.B.Yeats that are the essence of their colloquy and of the opera: ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.


[2] Now centred on F sharp, the ninth variation introduces The Bells, the second scene, set in the churchyard. Miles and Flora are heard singing their version of a psalm, mingled with a gender rhyme. They are sitting on a table tomb, as the Governess and Mrs Grose enter. The housekeeper finds comfort in the bright morning and in the apparent innocence of the children, playing together. The Governess, however, is convinced that Miles and Flora are not with them, but with the others, who can destroy them. Mrs Grose tells her she should write to their guardian, but the Governess doubts what she can say, that either the children are mad or she is. Mrs Grose takes Flora into the church, and Miles, alone with the Governess, asks when he is to go back to school, finally offering what seems to her to be a challenge, as he goes off into the church. The voices of Mrs Grose and the children are heard from the church, as the Governess runs off, seeking an escape from a place she sees as poisoned by evil.


[3] The tenth variation, descending a semitone to F, introduces the third scene, Miss Jessel. The Governess enters the schoolroom, to find Miss Jessel sitting at her desk and rising to lament her own downfall, to the horror of the Governess, waiting, ready for the child. The Governess tries to challenge her, but the ghost cannot answer her. She determines, as Miss Jessel disappears, to write to the children’s guardian. The instruments suggest the words of her letter, which she reads aloud, once it is finished.


[4] Bass clarinet and alto flute introduce the eleventh variation, based on E flat, and leading to the fourth scene, The Bedroom. Miles is sitting on the edge of his bed, his jacket and shoes off. A candle is burning. He sings his ambiguous song of evil, Malo, interrupted by the Governess, who tries to gain his confidence, and tells him that she has written to his guardian. She tries to find out what happened at school and what is happening at Bly, but the voice of Quint is heard, calling for him. The candle goes out, to the agitation of the Governess, but it was Miles who blew it out.


[5] The twelfth variation, centring on C sharp, is marked Quick and urgent. Here the voice of Quint, himself seen perhaps in silhouette, urges Miles to take the letter. In the fifth scene, Quint, he urges Miles in the most seductive terms to steal the letter from the schoolroom desk, which the boy finally does, taking it back to his bedroom.


[6] Now based on C, the following variation serves to introduce Miles’s piano practice in the sixth scene, The Piano, its musical allusions to traditional piano studies immediately evident. As Miles plays, the Governess and Mrs Grose listen to him, while Flora plays at cat’s cradle by their side. Miles starts showing even more of his prowess at the piano, while Mrs Grose, who has been sitting with Flora, begins to nod off, lulled deliberately by Flora, who slips away. The Governess suddenly realises that Flora has gone and rouses Mrs Grose to come with her to find the girl, leaving Miles, who has clearly used his piano-playing to distract the attention of the Governess from his sister.


[7] In the fourteenth variation, on the centre B flat, Miles celebrates his triumph. Mrs Grose is heard calling Flora, as the seventh scene, Flora, opens, the little girl now by the lake, watching. Mrs Grose scolds her gently for running away from them, but the Governess sees Miss Jessel on the other side of the lake. Mrs Grose, however, can see nothing. Flora shrilly accuses the Governess of being cruel, horrible, hateful and nasty, insisting that she cannot see anybody. Mrs Grose takes Flora back to the house, leaving the Governess deserted, now hated by her charge.


[8] The fifteenth variation makes use of all the twelve notes, as it leads to the eighth scene, Miles. Mrs Grose and Flora appear in travelling clothes, ready to leave. The Governess moves towards them, but Flora turns her back. Mrs Grose, however, has heard enough from Flora, as she slept, to convince her that the Governess is right, her reaction reflected in a harp phrase that recalls her first revelation to the Governess of Quint’s evil. She tells her, however, that her letter to their guardian never went. The original tonal centre of A has now been reached, as the Governess resolves to save Miles. She still wants the boy to reveal what has happened, but the voice of Quint is heard, in increasingly urgent warning. Quint can now be seen on the tower, urging Miles not to tell the Governess their secrets. She wants the boy to admit to this evil, by declaring Quint’s name, which he finally does, running into the arms of the Governess. The voice of Quint is heard, bidding him farewell, but Miles is dead. She repeats the boy’s song, Malo, asking what they have done to him, between them.


Keith Anderson

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