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Benjamin Britten

Nocturnal after John Dowland

In 1964 Britten received a $3,000.00 Aspen (Colorado) award given by the Institute of Humanistic Studies to honor "the individual anywhere in the world judged to have made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the humanities." This first-ever award was inscribed: "to Benjamin Britten, who, as a brilliant composer, performer, and interpreter through music of human feelings, moods, and thoughts, has truly inspired man to understand, clarify and appreciate more fully his own nature, purpose, and destiny."

In his published response to this award, Britten said he believed in "occasional music …Almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers." He continued, "…We shouldn't worry too much about the so-called 'permanent' value of our occasional music. We should aim at pleasing people today as seriously as we can, and letting the future look after itself…I do not write for posterity - in any case, the outlook for that is somewhat uncertain. I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it."

The definite performer Britten had in mind for the Nocturnal after John Dowland was lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream and the occasion was the Aldeburgh Festival of 1964 (the same year Britten received the Aspen award), for which Britten wanted to compose a big piece for Bream to perform. The theme, John Dowland's Come, heavy sleep, emerges in complete form only at the close of the eight variations, with each variation having some distorted feature of the theme or its accompaniment.

Programmatic in nature, the Nocturnal after John Dowland is reflective, probably of insomnia, ending in the oblivion of the heavy sleep invoked by Dowland. Britten had previously used music by Dowland, whom he greatly admired, in Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of John Dowland, a work for viola and piano, reset for viola and orchestra in 1976, Britten's final year.

Copyright © 1996 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.