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"'A Song not Without Words': Singing Billy Budd"

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E.M. Forster’s collaboration on the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd constituted his first extensive creative exercise since he abandoned the writing of novels. Forster found in the project the potential to achieve his declared fictional ideal of a work founded primarily on rhythm and undefinable song. By using a pre-existing literary source, Forster was able to absolve himself of the responsibility of an "aesthetic pattern", and could in effect explore his own operatic and musical potential. This assumption of a higher musical creative role on the part of the librettist created the potential for conflict between the concerns of the libretto and their adaptation (or redefinition) in the musical score. Such a conflict is manifest in a consistent tension throughout the opera between a tendency towards classical dramatic ideals and those of such modernist writers as Auden or Eliot, and a constant vacillation in thematic emphasis. Given the characteristics of the original source, this narrative and thematic tension ultimately creates in the operatic Billy Budd an inadvertently faithful adaptation.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2002


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