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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Music of the Night

In 1943, Benjamin Britten set the following words of John Keats to music in his Serenade [listen]:

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,

Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light,

Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:

O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close

In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,

Or wait the "Amen," ere thy poppy throws

Around my bed its lulling charities.

Then save me, or the passed day will shine

Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,--

Save me from curious Conscience, that still lords

Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;

Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,

And seal the hushed Casket of my Soul.

Keats’ ode To Sleep conveys many of the notions with night and dreams with which Britten would become preoccupied in the late 50s and early 60s. Night, dreams, darkness, uncertainty, fear... These concepts have brought forth in many composers - not just Britten - music which creates these and allied emotions in the listener. In this post, we’re going to explore some music of the night.

Fifteen years after the Serenade - in 1958 - Britten composed his Nocturne for tenor, seven obbligato instruments and strings. The cycle as a whole sets poems which deal with night and nightmares, such as this setting of another poem by Keats in praise of sleep, featuring solo flute and clarinet. After describing the playful movements of insects and birds in summer, the mention of sleep, closed eyes and lullabies brings about serene, swaying chords in the strings which silence the meanderings of the flute and clarinet. [listen]

This is followed by a setting of Shakespeare - Sonnet 43 - which brings the Nocturne to a close. It states a preference for night over day, because in night one can sleep and dream of the beloved. The last couplet summarises it beautifully:

All days are nights to see till I see thee,

And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me. [listen]

The term “nocturne” was given sometimes frightening associations by Britten in this work, however it wasn’t always so. At the start of the 19th century, the Irish pianist and composer John Field (who died in 1837) developed a style of playing which was freer than that of the Austro-German composers of the day. It is Field who is credited with using the term “nocturne” in a musical context for the first time. Field’s nocturnes for piano are intended to describe a gentle, restful view of night, with wistful, romantic associations. They are also derived from the composer’s famous skills as an improviser, a fact evident in these pieces being largely free of strict formal construction. This nocturne, one of his best-known, was published in 1817. [listen]

Wachsmann: John Field (1820)

Lovers of piano music will immediately recognise from this the enormous influence Field had on his contemporaries, most notably Chopin, whose nocturnes are clearly developed from those of the Irish composer. This is probably the most famous: [listen]

Wodzinska: Frédéric Chopin (1836)

Even earlier composers than Field, though, sought to create the feeling of night or darkness in their music. In the seventeenth century, Purcell’s miniature scene, In guilty night, tells of the visit by disobedient King Saul to the Witch of Endor. [listen]

Blake: The Ghost of Samuel appearing to Saul (c. 1800)

And in the 1730s, Handel portrayed darkness stunningly in his oratorio Israel in Egypt. Handel’s music describes the ten plagues visited upon Egypt by God as Moses attempted to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites from bondage. The plague of darkness is painted by Handel in a choral recitative in which there is no home key and in which the harmonies are completely unpredictable. The impenetrable nature of this unnatural darkness is clearly heard in the music, as if people are terrified and groping around. “He sent a thick darkness over all the land, even darkness which might be felt.” [listen]

Darkness of a different kind is portrayed by Beethoven in his opera Fidelio, the first version of which was premiered in 1805. The opening of the second act describes the hero, Florestan, in prison. The introduction describes not only the darkness of Florestan’s cell, but also the darkness of the political injustice which has put him there. His first words, Gott! Welch Dunkel hier! say it all - God! What darkness here! After Florestan sings of his torment the music becomes happier as he sense the presence of his wife Leonore. He doesn’t realise at this point how close she really is... In this recording from 1957 Florestan is sung by the tenor Ernst Haefliger and the scene in question covers the first 10’40 of this link: [listen]

One of my favourite theatrical night moments comes from an opera written almost a century after Beethoven’s Fidelio. As she waits for her beloved husband to arrive after years away, and having finally seen his ship in the harbour, the ecstatic Butterfly spends the night awaiting his return. The utter stillness of what she believes to be the happiest night of her life is portrayed by Puccini in music of exquisite delicacy. Off stage the chorus sings long wordless notes over a whisper-quiet accompaniment. The chorus parts are marked by the composer to be sung a bocca chiuso - with the mouth closed. The result is what is now universally known as the "Humming Chorus", one of the most moving portrayals of night I know. [listen]

A composer who from time to time invoked the fears of night in his music was Béla Bartók. A number of Bartók’s major works contain sections we might refer to as “night music”. In these, the mood is one of fear, sometimes terror, definitely uncertainty, with suggestions of frightening bird calls. The wonderful Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936 has as its third movement a classic example of this powerfully evocative sort of writing. The rhythms of Hungarian folk music are infused with percussive and string sonorities which send a shiver up the spine. [listen]

We started with the music of Benjamin Britten and I’d like to include one more example of his music, one his best-known depictions of night. In his 1945 opera Peter Grimes, the orchestral interludes (which are often heard in orchestral concerts) all concern the sea, and the ravishing Moonlight interlude is certainly one of the most beautiful works of its type in the repertoire. The gentle rocking of the waves and the glistening reflections of moonlight on the water are clearly audible. If ever there was an example of simplicity of means being the most effective, then this is it, although the apparent simplicity belies a wealth of detail in the score. Anyone who knows me will know of my love for the music of Britten. It’s pieces like this which revealed his genius to me. [listen]

The expressive power of composers who can so wonderfully portray night and darkness in music is one of the many things that make music so wonderful for me. Darkness is clearly more than just an absence of light in our minds; it conjures fears, or peacefulness, or sleep. It’s an entity as real as day, and I hope you’ve found these varied musical responses to night as fascinating as I have.

Of course, in calling this program “Music of the Night”, I’ve made deliberate reference to one of the most famous of all modern music theatre works. After all, I imagine it gets very dark in the caverns under the Paris Opéra... [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2005.

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