Britten and the Guitar

Critical Perspectives for Performers

by Benjamin Dwyer (Author)
©2016 Monographs X, 264 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 789


Benjamin Dwyer’s Britten and the Guitar: Critical Perspectives for Performers is the first complete study of the guitar works of Benjamin Britten. This book offers more than an objective analytical study of these compositions. Dwyer draws upon his expertise as a classical guitarist, composer and musicologist to deliver a multi-lensed examination of this music providing broad contexts and unique insights.
Dwyer not only explores the intricate relationship between Britten, his life-long partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and the guitarist Julian Bream, for whom all the guitar works were written, but goes further in situating Renaissance composer and lutenist John Dowland as a central and inspirational figure who hovers over all of Britten’s guitar works. In so doing, he offers new perspectives into Britten’s compositional approach demonstrating how techniques of musical rhetoric, exemplified by Dowland, are central to his musical language. 
Britten and the Guitar: Critical Perspectives for Performers is an essential guide for the professional guitarist and singer, the committed teacher, and those who simply wish to understand more about the guitar music of one Britain’s foremost composers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Plates and Figures
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Setting Contexts
  • Chapter Two: Courtly Connections—Gloriana and the Guitar
  • Chapter Three: Songs from the Chinese
  • Chapter Four: Folksong Arrangements Volume VI
  • Chapter Five: Nocturnal, after John Dowland
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix I
  • Appendix II
  • Appendix III
  • Appendix IV
  • Appendix V
  • Appendix VI
  • Appendix VII
  • Index
  • Backmatter


Aspects of Chapter Three were published in The Musical Times (Summer 2012) under the title ‘“Within it Lie Ancient Melodies”—Locating Dowland’s Musical Rhetoric in Britten’s Songs from the Chinese’, and in a 2014 lecture of the same title at DePaul University, Chicago. Elements of Chapter Five have been incorporated into lectures given at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Society for Musicology in Ireland (Dundalk Institute of Technology), the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin (2013) and at the University of Iowa (2014) under the titles ‘Overt Simplicity, Covert Complexity: Britten’s Recalibration of Variation Form’ and ‘Transcendence as a System: Britten’s Reverse Variation Form’. All this material has undergone revision for reasons of broader contextualization and integration into this book.

Thanks are due to the staff of the Britten-Pears Library, in particular Dr. Nicholas Clarke who was always at hand to assist me in my research at the Red House. Thanks also to the staff at the British Library. I am grateful to Middlesex University for its fulsome support of my research and creative work.

Special thanks go to Faber & Faber and Boosey & Hawkes for permission to publish musical examples, and the Britten-Pears Library for permission to publish letters, MSS and photographs from the Britten-Pears archive.

I am indebted to Dr. Barra Ó Séaghdha whose critical survey of this book was enormously helpful.

I would like to offer special thanks to friends and colleagues who have supported me over the years: David Adams, Siobhán Armstrong, James Blennerhassett, Lorraine Byrne Bodley, John Buckley, Phil Buckley, Darby Carroll, Jonathan Creasy, Dan Farrelly, Peter Fribbins, Mark Fitzgerald, Bridget Flannery, Dylan Griffith, Barry Guy, Johannes Heisig, Niamh Holland, Maya Homburger, Marion Hyland, Pavlos Kanellakis, Brian Kavanagh, Deborah Kelleher, Garth Knox, Antonio de Linares, Rossi McAuley, Margaret Nolan, Wolfgang Marx, Billy O Hanluain, Gavin O’Sullivan, Chrissie Poulter, Marco Proietti, Nick Roth, Atoosa Sepehr, Peter Wells and Caroline Wynne have all offered me kindness and encouragement. Finally, I would like to thank my family who have always been very supportive of my creative and academic work.

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Nocturnal, after John Dowland deserves a far higher place in the common view of Britten’s achievement than it has yet gained’1

Despite the prodigious attention Benjamin Britten has received from musicologists over the past fifty years or so, very little research has focused on those works he composed for and with guitar. The fact that the guitar still resides very much on the periphery of the classical music world has probably nurtured this curious myopia. Additionally, Britten’s accomplishment in situating English opera as a vital force in 20th-century music has rightly received the bulk of musicological attention. Britten’s guitar works have thus been largely sidelined in light of more prominent achievements. However, marginal as they might be, I will argue that they are more significant than heretofore recognized because they emerge out of and feed into the most essential aspects of Britten’s compositional character in ways that make us look at them anew. I have thus explored the guitar works within the context of these crucial features, which include Britten’s aesthetic relationship with the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (and in particular his connection with John Dowland), his project to revitalize vocal forms in 20th-century English music, his melancholic obsessions with dream, sleep and death as conduits for cathartic release, and his methods of ‘unconcealing’ secret messages in his music that otherwise could not be explicitly articulated, most pertinently relating to his homosexuality.

This book focuses upon the unique ways in which Britten’s guitar works highlight these central themes. Their tangential position within his overall output means that what they bring to this project has so far ←1 | 2→escaped serious consideration. However, what they expose are surprisingly fresh perspectives and insights into what I call Britten’s unique musical idiolect. Just as the chromatic limitations of the harp encourage Britten to create a kind of elementary harmonic language for Curlew River, the guitar’s idiosyncrasies, even its limitations, force Britten to work in a particularly concise and distilled manner. We thus experience Britten’s guitar music as somewhat different; we hear it as a condensed exemplar, a hypostatized articulation of his musical thought, as music rendered through more focused and concentrated processes than much of his other work. Britten was a composer who constantly strove for a refinement of musical thought; so when he states that ‘music for me is clarification; I try to clarify, to refine, to sensitise…My technique is to tear all the waste away; to achieve perfect clarity of expression, that is my aim’, we can appreciate that the guitar is in many respects an ideal medium for him.2 Since the restrictions of the instrument prohibit Britten from enriching his language exorbitantly, it provides him with a readymade conduit to achieve the ‘perfect clarity’ he seeks. In this regard, I shall argue that Britten’s music for guitar often tells us more about his compositional raisons d’être than many of his larger works.

There are also numerous compositional innovations that are unique to Britten’s guitar works, which make a study of them valuable for a better understanding of the composer. While Britten employs a reverse variation format in two other pieces, Op. 70’s reverse structure is demonstrated here as being particularly distinctive in its sophisticated sub-structural configuration. The Nocturnal-passacaglia is also unique among Britten’s many passacaglias in the way the ‘rigid principle’ of the ground collapses in an extended technical process of imminent self-destruction. In both Nocturnal and Songs from the Chinese we see exemplary confirmation of Britten’s intuitive use of musical rhetoric, which he absorbed from Elizabethan and Jacobean models. The Folksong Arrangements for tenor and guitar also offer outstanding illustrations of Britten’s sweeping renovation to folk-song setting that fashioned, in fact, a hybridized form. Through rhetorically charged accompaniments the folksong is fused with lieder models to create a sophisticated and distinctive form sui generis in song genres.

As a composer, guitarist, teacher and musicologist, I am convinced that a multi-perspectival approach to the study of a given musical subject draws out insights, often complex and even contradictory, that ←2 | 3→deeply enrich appreciation. I therefore explore Britten’s guitar works through numerous lenses. Music is not composed in a vacuum; a score is not merely an intricate code of musical symbols unreflective of its generator’s existence. A piece of music is an overt demonstration of aesthetic attitudes, a unique and unrepeatable moment in the expressive consciousness of a creative artist, and a reflection of a composer’s intellective and emotional development. No matter how abstract, music discloses information about a composer’s social and political philosophies, historical and artistic influences, and psychological and spiritual predicaments.

In this book, therefore, analyses are not undertaken to produce objective empirical data about Britten’s compositional methodologies but rather conducted within broader perspectives of significance often of a contextual, metaphoric and even philosophical nature. For example, two technical analyses (Songs from the Chinese and Nocturnal) are conducted through the lens of musical rhetoric, which strengthens our understanding of Britten’s connection with the musical aesthetics of the English Renaissance and Baroque. An introductory exploration of Chinese poetics enhances an understanding of Britten’s skill for creating multi-layered narratives in his sophisticated settings of text. A clarification of the social, political and musical environments in which Britten emerged in the inter-war years as a composer supports our understanding of his radical, almost anarchic approach to folksong setting. An appreciation of the Gnostic influences that darkened Dowland’s music feeds into our comprehension of Britten’s correlating obsessions with death; a philosophical enquiry into both composers reveals how their musical death wishes are paradoxically quests for transcendental catharsis. All these subjects and ideas interface with each other to create a bricolage of interpretation and perspective that I hope will achieve a richer understanding and appreciation of Britten’s guitar works for guitarists, singers, teachers and those who simply enjoy listening to great music.

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1 Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten (London: J.M. Dent, 1979), 333.

2 Murray Schafer, ‘British Composers in Interview’, in Remembering Britten, Alan Blyth (London: Hutchinson, 1981), 66.


X, 264
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2016. X, 264 pp., 14. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Benjamin Dwyer (Author)


Title: Britten and the Guitar
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274 pages