A Boy Was Born – but what a child…

The University of Sheffield is presenting one of the largest festivals of the work of Benjamin Britten during his anniversary year of 2013, A Boy Was Born. Tonight’s event, a rush hour talk and concert, was centered on Britten’s Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac), performed beautifully by Sam Penkett, Stewart Campbell and Jonathan Gooing, and introduced by Prof. Hugh Pyper, from the University’s Biblical Studies Department.

Pyper set the scene for the performance by examining the role of the paternal in Britten’s work, focusing on the troubling line ‘Father, do with me as you will’. The Abraham and Isaac story from the Hebrew Bible – as refigured in a Chester Mystery Play, from which Britten draws his libretto – signals the emblematic troubling ethical implications which Kant, Auerbach, and others have explored at length. The sacrificial demand, and Abraham and Isaac’s seeming willingness to go through with it out of duty and obedience, signals the ‘agonic’ nature of the Father-Son relationship[1] which implicates both the Freudian Oedipus complex (the son desiring to kill his father) and the Laius complex (the father desiring to kill his son). These patricidal and filicidal inclinations reveal the father and son as a threat to each other, and Pyper explored other troubled paternal figures in Britten’s operatic works, and the loss of innocence and troubling sexual undertones implied by these works. Yet rather than dwelling on Britten’s much talked-about biography, referring to those who search for how his sexuality figures in his works, Pyper instead diverted our attention to something far more interesting, and aesthetically challenging: He suggested that the paternal in Britten needs to be explored in relation to his heirs – his musical works.

This idea immediately sparked resonances for me with two of the French poets I work on.

Mallarmé’s extraordinary poem ‘Don du poème’ paints a painful scene of a poet presenting the gift of a ‘newborn’ to his wife, a poetic child that, on the one hand, he fears may be stillborn, whilst on the other, he sees as a threat. The haunting line ‘ce père essayant un sourire ennemi’ signals the ‘agonic’ nature of the paternal relationship with the poet’s offspring. It is the poet who gives birth, diverting the life-giving role from a mother onto a father, but the father is wary of what he has given birth to. Like Pyper’s suggestion of reading Britten’s works away from his biography, this too is different from reading Mallarmé’s poem for its biographical references (Mallarmé suffered the tragedy of losing his son Anatole at the age of eight), and instead turns the focus to the poet’s heirs and his relationship with them. In ‘Don du poème’, the Oedpial threat is there, as the father perceives his progeny as an ennemy (the work takes over), but the Laius myth threat is also there, as the poet expresses violent disgust at the ‘horrible naissance’ (the poet looks to get rid of his work).

The threatening violence of the Father-Son relationship is like the troubling relationship between the composer and his work, between the poet and his work. Neither father figure can predict how the relationship with his offspring will pan out. And this, finally, brings me to revisit some recent work on what I’ve termed Baudelaire’s legacy to composers. Baudelaire has no human heirs, but his poetic offspring have generated a wealth of revisionings, adaptations, and readings by audiences and artists across the world, throughout the centuries since their birth. Baudelaire’s fear about his poetic legacy is latent, however, in a way that strikes a potent chord with Britten’s Canticle II.


[1] This picks up on Lawrence Kramer’s analysis of word-music themselves relations as ‘agonic’ in Music and Poetry: The Nineteenth Century and After (Berkley: University of California Press, 1984), p.129.

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