Nocturnal op. 70

by Thomas Stiegler

Think of all the music written
Before the birth of Benjamin Britten
And then
Think of Ben [1]

This quatrain seems to me to express all the love and respect that was shown to Benjamin Britten throughout his life. At the same time, however, these words also hide an allusion to the fact that many people saw a turning point in English music with Britten’s work and strictly separated it into a time before and after him. Quite apart from what one might think of such intellectual gimmicks (and without going into the question of whether a single composer has ever really had such a great influence on music history), it seems to me that there is one work from his pen on which such a thought experiment could be carried out.

For his Nocturnal op. 70 (composed in 1963) is based on the song “Come, heavy Sleep” by the Renaissance composer John Dowland and thus connects England’s past with its present in the form of Benjamin Britten. Moreover, the work points far into the future (at least in the small world of classical guitar), for Britten was already one of the best-known and most important composers of the 20th century at the time, and it was the first time that such an acknowledged figure had seriously engaged with the classical guitar. [2]
Even if the work may sound somewhat alien to untrained listeners and one therefore needs some time to fall under the spell of this music, I dare to say that it is one of the most beautiful and interesting works ever written for the guitar. However, this is not because Benjamin Britten attempts here in a post-Romantic manner to recall the great times of his homeland and to resurrect them musically, but because he digs far deeper than one would expect and thus makes this work a soul drama of its very own kind. For his composition is far more than a reminiscence of Dowland’s England, and it seems to me that it is only through his work that one understands not only what beauty lies in this music, but above all what meaning it can still have for us today. So this composition really becomes a link between the old and the new, and even more so a fulcrum of two worlds. But in order to understand what I am trying to say, I have to expand a little and go into the deep similarities that lay in the personalities of the two composers.


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John Dowland lived in an age that already seems strange to us today and of which Timothy Bright said so aptly: “Loneliness, mourning, weeping; a fearful condition of the mind that has departed from reason … “[3] This phenomenon, also called “Elizabethan Melancholy”, found its most important representative in John Dowland, for the prevailing spirit of the age seemed to concentrate in his person as if under a burning glass. Hence he also seemed ” … as complex and as full of contradictions as the age in which he lived. Tremendously egocentric and highly emotional, with a just estimate of his own powers, but with an almost childishly irritable reaction to criticism; subject from time to time to fits of melancholy… ” [4]

Probably the most beautiful expression of this feeling for the world and one of the most perfect creations of his time are Dowland’s songs, which are still able to enchant us today. Hardly ever before has a composer given so much space to melancholy in his work, but without exaggerating and leaving the limits of what can be said, simply through the power of his melodies. One of the most beautiful and best-known works from his pen is certainly the aforementioned “Come, heavy sleep” used by Benjamin Britten in his Nocturnal.

Come, heavy Sleep, the image of true Death,
And close up these my weary weeping eyes,
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vital breath,
And tears my heart with Sorrow’s sigh-swoll’n cries.
Come and possess my tired thought, worn soul,
That living dies, till thou on me be stole.

Come, shadow of my end, and shape of rest,
Allied to Death, child to his black-faced Night;
Come thou and charm these rebels in my breast,
Whose waking fancies do my mind affright.
O come, sweet Sleep, come or I die for ever;
Come ere my last sleep comes, or come never.

Benjamin Britten spent his life exploring the world of John Dowland and his time, and the fruit of this work was such wonderful works as his Nocturne op. 60 (for tenor and chamber orchestra) or the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream op. 64. The song “Come, heavy Sleep”, however, must also have been something special for him, because not only did themes such as dream, darkness and death seem to accompany him throughout his life, but he also addressed this aspect of his work directly: “And of course the Nocturnal that I wrote for Julian Bream also has some, I think, very disturbing images in it, which are of course connected with this Dowland song, which of course also has very strange undertones. Dowland was a man who perhaps even consciously recognised the importance of dreams. ” [5]

Benjamin Britten did not write ordinary variations on the work, but sat down at his desk and penetrated further into the cosmos of Dowland’s imagination than we are generally accustomed to. For he dissects the music into its components, plays with the individual motifs and reinterprets them, and in turn uses all this only as a starting point to let his own voice resound over Dowland’s song. In doing so, he not only gives us a new work, but he also allows us a new perspective on Dowland’s music and paves the way for his melancholy into our time, breaks it through his sharp gaze and thereby lets us recognise our own time as if in a mirror.

The way he has done this is truly original, for his composition is, by design, an inverted work of variation whose movements one would have to listen to from the back in order to arrive at the usual order. For it is only at the very end of the composition that appears what belongs at the beginning – the melody of Dowland’s original composition. But through this breaking open of the familiar, a true cosmos of meanings opens up to us, in which all that sounds before seems like a preparation, like an early announcement, a gliding into the world of pain and sorrow that we experience at the end in Dowland’s song.


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But let’s finally get down to the music directly. This is not the place to analyse Britten’s compositional craft (that would go beyond the scope of this chapter anyway), but I will nevertheless go into a little detail about the individual variations and perhaps give a few listening hints.

Quietly, almost unassumingly calm and simple, Britten’s work comes across. If you listen carefully, you can already recognise the first echoes of Dowland’s “Come, heavy Sleep” here, because even if you don’t consciously perceive it, it becomes palpable on a deeper level through the power of Britten’s imagination.

After about two minutes, the first variation, entitled “Very Agitated”, begins. Very agitated-sounding chains of triplets cast a real frisson of excitement and restlessness over this music, which segues seamlessly into the second variation called “Restless”. And this “restless” is really meant literally, for only superficially does the music seem to calm down. But here the triple rhythm and duols are almost hostile to each other, creating a feeling of restlessness, of wandering and being lost in darkness. Britten dwells on this feeling for a very long time and this variation also seems almost overlong, which seems to me like a first glimpse of Dowland’s abysses.

Does Britten really mean that this is how we dream? “Dreaming” is the name of the sixth movement of his work, meaning “dreamy”, and perhaps his dreams really were of this kind. But these have long ceased to be soothing images; through fragile harmonies and distorted, floating harmonics, it seems as if this movement is casting us out of the land of dreams.

Perhaps the lullaby can bring us some peace. “Gently rocking” is what Britten calls this movement, and the simple melody could really serve as a lullaby. But more than as a work in its own right, it stands at this point as a preparation for the climax of the piece – a large-scale passacaglia6: here the constantly recurring bass figure immediately stands out, the corner notes of which are taken from Dowland’s lute accompaniment and which forms the cornerstone of this work in the opus. Here Britten really creates a synthesis of Dowland’s and his world! The music becomes denser and denser, the voices interweave more and more, and it almost seems as if Britten wants to illuminate all sides of Dowland’s cosmos once more.

And then everything comes to rest. Silence returns and the original composition appears almost alien to us, as if from afar, from another world. And that is what it is! For driven by Britten’s talent, we have so far only known it in its disguises, alienated, as a dream motif, as a distorted march, as a thought splinter or lullaby, but now we hear the piece for the first time in its original form and it is almost as if we were returning from a long journey and suddenly seeing a person before us, whom we have only known from stories, naked and defenceless.


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Finally, I would like to mention what Shakespeare said about Dowland, but which seems to me to apply equally well to Benjamin Britten’s work: “You give yourself over to Dowland’s melodies, enveloped in their melodious charm “7. In this sense, we cannot thank Julian Bream, who was only 19 at the time, enough for persuading Benjamin Britten to write such a work for our wonderful instrument.


1 ….. Source: – Cd-Besprechung Johannes Hüttenmüller

2 ….. Of course, there were already the well-known works of Mauel de Falla, Heitor Villa-Lobos or Frank Martin. But none of these composers was anywhere near as important to the world of classical music as Benjamin Britten.

3 ….. Timothy Bright (1551-1615), aus »A treatise of melancholie«; Although he speaks here decidedly of the effects of melancholy, this passage also seems to me to fit quite well with the general attitude to life of this epoch. Source: – Cd-Besprechung Johannes Hüttenmüller

4 ….. Diana Poulton (1903-1995), English lutenist; quoted after: ANALYSIS OF NOCTURNAL OP. 70 BY BENJAMIN BRITTEN, David J. Frackenpohl.

5 ….. Britten spoke with Donald Mitchell about the work; quoted from: ANALYSIS OF NOCTURNAL OP. 70 BY BENJAMIN BRITTEN, David J. Frackenpohl.

6 ….. Form of baroque variation, usually based on a four- or eight-bar bass line that can be repeated as often as desired.

7 ….. William Shakespeare in “The Passionate Pilgrim”, quoted from ” John Dowland, Important Lute Virtuoso and Composer of the Late Renaissance” by D. Kruse in BR Klassik.

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