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Benjamin Britten

Six Metamorphoses after Ovid

Benjamin Britten was an enthusiastic composer of music for his close friends and colleagues, including solo works for cello, harp, and oboe. In 1951, Britten was primarily concerned with writing his opera Billy Budd. After he had finished sketching it, he turned his attention to other projects, among them overseeing the Aldeburgh Festival, which had begun four years previously primarily as a showcase for English operas, and where many of his own works were given their premières. In the same year Britten composed six little pieces for solo oboe, to be performed by Joy Boughton (daughter of the composer Rutland Boughton) during the Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten turned for inspiration to Ovid, the exiled Roman poet who died in 17 A.D. in obscurity on the northwest coast of the Black Sea. Ovid's greatest work, Metamorphoses, is a fifteen-volume treatise of the disillusionment of his generation described in terms of the instability of nature. Britten has titled his Six Metamorphoses After Ovid using names of the some of the legendary figures who appear in the great Roman poet's work. The movements are:

  1. PAN who played upon the reed pipe which was Syrinx, his beloved.
  2. PHAETON who rode upon the chariot of the sun for one day and was hurled into the river Padus by a thunderbolt.
  3. NIOBE who, lamenting the death of her fourteen children, was turned into stone.
  4. BACCHUS at whose feasts is heard the noise of gaggling women's tattling tongues and shouting out of boys.
  5. NARCISSUS who fell in love with his own image and became a flower.
  6. ARETHUSA who, flying from the love of Alpheus the river god, was turned into a fountain.

These six pieces, written in Britten's later style, demonstrate the musical metamorphoses which always fascinated Britten.

Copyright © 1996 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.