First parable for church performance (duration 1 hour 10 minutes)

Libretto by William Plomer, from the medieval Japanese Nō play Sumidigawa River of Jūrō Motomasa

A quick introduction

When was it written?

January – 26 March 1964. The first performance was on 13 June 1964 at Orford Church, in the Aldeburgh Festival.

What’s it about?

This is the story of a woman who has lost her child, and finds out he had been abducted, and later died. She is told this by a Ferryman, who takes her across Curlew River.

What does it sound like?

Britten’s Church Parables (three of them in total) are for small instrumental forces and all-male casts. He makes great use of musical symbolism in this piece, such as flute for the ‘Madwoman’ and French horn for the Ferryman.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. The church parable is based on the Japanese Nō play Sumidigawa which Britten and Pears saw performed twice during their visit to Japan in 1956.

2. The librettist William Plomer anglicised the Japanese elements, moving the setting to East Anglia and renaming his draft ‘Curlew River’.

3. It has an all-male cast, but the main role is that of a mother who has lost her child. Pears played this role in the first performance.

4. In common with the other two parables (The Burning FieryFurnace and The Prodigal Son), Curlew River was premiered in Orford Church in Suffolk.

5. Britten went to Venice for 6 weeks to work on this piece. By the 1960s, Venice was one of the few places other than Suffolk where he could compose.

The plot

Time and Place: A church by a Fenland river in early medieval times

The Monks enter chanting the plainsong Te lucis ante terminum. The Abbot comes forward to address the congregation and introduces the mystery to be enacted. The Monks prepare for the performance. The Ferryman steps forward and reveals that a memorial service is to take place that day at a shrine on the far bank of the Curlew River. A Traveller enters describing his travels and tells of his intention to cross the river. The Ferryman delays departure to listen to the demented singing of a Madwoman who is approaching the boat. The Madwoman enters, singing of her lost child. After some resistance, the Ferryman agrees to take her across the river. During the crossing, the Ferryman relates the story of a stranger who, a year before, had arrived in his boat accompanied by a young boy of noble parentage who subsequently died from illness and exhaustion. The Madwoman weeps. She questions the Ferryman about the event and it becomes clear that the child was her abducted son. On reaching the grave, she sings a lament. The Monks pray with the Madwoman and the voice of the boy’s spirit is heard. The spirit then appears in full view above the tomb and the Mother, now cured of her madness, sings an Amen. The Monks resume their habits and the Abbot draws a moral conclusion. The Monks process away from the acting area, chanting the plainsong with which the work opened.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.