Third parable for church performance (duration 1 hour and 10 minutes)

Libretto by William Plomer after the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15 verses 11-32.

A quick introduction

When was it written?

November 1967 – April 1968. The first performance was on 10 June 1968 in Orford Church, in the Aldeburgh Festival.

What’s it about?

The final church parable is based on the famous biblical parable of the same name. The youngest of three sons leaves the family home and squanders his inheritance, in the company of a ‘Tempter’. Eventually, having lost all his money, he returns home where his father welcomes him back with open arms.

What does it sound like?

As with The Burning Fiery Furnace there are some unusual instruments in this parable, including a conical gourd rattle. Britten also plays with musical contrasts between the opening and closing scenes with the son’s family, and the central scene of debauchery.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. The Prodigal Son is dedicated to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich would in turn dedicate his 14th symphony to Britten.

2. The opera was inspired by seeing Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son during a visit to The Hermitage in St Petersburg in December 1966.

3. Composition was held up while Britten was admitted to Ipswich Hospital for a month in 1968, suffering from bacterial endocarditis.

4. The chorus has a much fuller role in The Prodigal Son than it does in the previous two Church Parables.

5. Although collectively known as the three Church Parables, Britten commented in interview in 1967 that he was ‘doing another church opera to go with the other two, Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace, to make a kind of trilogy’.

The plot

The Monks enter chanting the plainsong Jam lucis orto sidere. The Abbot, disguised as the Tempter, moves through the congregation introducing the parable to be enacted. The Monks to play the Father and two Sons are prepared for the performance. The Father goes off with the labourers to work in the fields, the Younger Son, encouraged by the Tempter, pleads with his father for his share of the inheritance. His portion duly granted, he heads off for the city with the Tempter at his side. The Parasites urge the Younger Son to indulge in whoring, drinking and gambling. After his period of debauchery, he is left penniless and starving. He decides to begin the journey home. On his arrival, his father greets him and orders a feast in celebration. Amid general rejoicing the Elder Son comes forward to protest at this preferential treatment of the ‘waster’. The father reconciles the two brothers: ‘He was dead and is alive again, was lost, and is found’. The Monks resume their habits and the Abbot draws a moral conclusion. The Monks process away form the acting area, chanting the plainsong which opened the work.

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