Benjamin britten

A tightly sprung turn of the screw

Portland Shakespeare Project's spry and stimulating stage version of Henry James's classic ghost story teases the tension in the tale

A great ghost story answers few questions. It seeps in and slithers out, raising the hair on your neck and revealing almost nothing but impressions of what may or may not have taken place.

That’s why The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s 1898 novella, is such a classic of the genre, and why not only readers, but also composers and playwrights, return to it again and again. The tale combines pinpoint writerly erudition with emotional and factual obfuscation. What really happened in those few short days at Bly House, the English country manse by the lake? Was the boy possessed? Did the ghosts exist? If evil truly was in the air, what was its source? Was the young governess a heroine, or criminally insane?

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills ...

Harder and Millican: chills, thrills …

James’s story leaves it all up in the air, where the shades of memory and overwrought imagination fly, and people have been interpreting it freely for more than a century, not only as a human puzzle but also as an artistic archetype. How can the tale be told in other ways, and still remain true to the original?

In his 1954 opera adaptation, Benjamin Britten retold it with terse and muscular music and a libretto by Myfanwy Piper that moves swiftly but fully, bringing everyone to the stage, spectral and not: Portland Opera presented a fine production of it in 2009 that was big on visual effects.


Music Review: Resonance Ensemble sings Britten, incandescently

Celebrating composer Benjamin Britten's 100th anniversary, Resonance creates a birthday high


Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten's music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.

Resonance Ensemble sang Benjamin Britten’s music at Portland State University. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar.


Benjamin Britten would be 100 years old this year, and his music seems well positioned to outlive the powerful segments of American and European musical establishments that resolutely ignored him during the heyday of 20th century modernism. He’s long been popular in his British homeland, of course, and his operas are performed more than any other composer born in the 20th century. Reflecting its creator, Britten’s music has a certain toughness and resilience that defy expectations and categorizations.

In celebration, Portland’s Resonance Ensemble presented a selection of his choral and solo vocal works a week ago last Sunday, performing for the first time in the live yet intimate ambience of Room 75 in Lincoln Hall at Portland State University. They dove right in with the meaty “Hymn to St. Cecilia,” on a poem written at Britten’s request by W. H. Auden. Artistic Director Katherine FitzGibbon gave a short, lively talk on the backstory beforehand.

Auden was deeply attracted to Britten, and seems to have taken the opportunity for one last attempt to make Britten return the interest, using all his considerable poetic ability. He wrote a series of arresting images, initially on topic but eventually casting all pretense and double meanings aside, by turns flattering, pleading, scolding, and bullying.(“… O hang the head, / Impetuous child with the tremendous brain…”). But when have those tactics ever worked? Britten was hardly unaffected—the music is some of his finest, rich with harmonic and contrapuntal color, and often intensely expressive—but his inspiration was primarily the patron saint of music, whom he had long wanted to honor with a major vocal work (not least because he was born on November 22nd, St. Cecilia’s Day). He even chopped up Auden’s poem, extracting the last quatrain of the first section to make choruses for the following two sections, to keep the focus on Cecilia and, no doubt, his own unwavering artistic purposes. He and Auden became estranged soon afterwards.

The music stands apart, not only from mid-20th century high modernism but also much of later choral practice, which has avoided that modernism so assiduously as to fall into the bland and saccharine. There is nothing bland or saccharine in this work, whose delightfully off-kilter harmonies may be inspired by Stravinsky but are much refined through Britten’s own highly individual sensibility. The easy lyricism of the individual voices and the unabashed expressivity are also worlds away from any Stravinskian model. Still, it can’t be much easier to sing.


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