A set of woodblock prints in Britten and Pears’ Library has a fascinating connection with the first Church Parable

The opera Curlew River was the first of Britten’s three Parables for Church Performance. It is based partly on the idea of the medieval Miracle Play – in which a story (usually a biblical tale about saints or matyrs) is dramatized by a group of performers and instrumentalists for the audience’s entertainment and moral enlightenment. A more significant initial influence for the Parable, however, was traditional Japanese Noh drama that Britten and Pears experienced during their tour of the Far East in 1956. Noh theatre has its origins in the fourteenth century. A popular focus of many dramas is the interaction between mortal world and spiritual realm of ghosts and gods and angels. Generally, Noh employs a relatively small number of actors/dancers and musicians to tell a story. Although Britten and Pears admittedly did not understand everything they saw during those performances in 1956, they were struck by the intensity of performance and imaginative presentation of narrative and character.

One story in particular, Sumidigawa (Sumida River), captivated Britten’s imagination. It is the tale of a woman who searches for her missing son. Grief over news of his death leads her into madness but her determination to be reunited with him brings about an eventual vision of his spirit and with it a form of redemption from insanity. Britten selected the story as the basis for a new type of opera, the Parable. The content would follow the Noh drama, the presentation would be influenced by the Miracle Play. Novelist, poet and short story writer William Plomer, with whom Britten had worked on the coronation opera Gloriana and who spent three years living and working in Japan in the late 1920s, was the Parable’s librettist.

Britten and Plomer decided to recast the story into a Western setting. It would take place in the East Anglian fen country. The title given to the new work reflected the sounds common to the open, watery spaces of the new location.

Cover of the Noh Play Prints.

Curlew River was first performed at Orford Church by the English Opera Group during the Aldeburgh Festival on the 12 June 1964. Six months earlier, Plomer had given Britten and Pears a Christmas gift, a set of six beautifully reproduced Japanese prints. Each one was a character selected from the corpus of Noh theatre and they were the work of Ryoshu Yamagushi, himself a Noh performer who had also mastered the craft of illustration. The prints were published by Kyoto Hanga in 1954. They are accompanied by a booklet Noh Play, Explanation and Stories with texts in Japanese and English about the history of Noh as well as some background to the six characters.

Japanese illustration of a figure with long black hair in a kimono

Kikujido from the set of six pictures, Kyoto Hanga, 1954

None, alas, are from Sumidigawa, but the pictures that are included provide an idea of the type of story that Noh sometimes tells. They comprise a dancing girl from Dojoji Temple, an Angel wearing a garment (Hagoromo) found by a fisherman, Shōjō (a kind of monkey), the ghost of Tomomori, the dancer Yamanba and Kikujido (who discovered a fountain of youth). As the booklet suggests, the point of each story is to entertain and to move the audience:

The artistic value of Noh is its elegance, simplified to the extreme degree. Noh performers play to the singing of minstrels (Zikata) who tell the stories in low solemn tone …. This is an art of enchantment.

The idea of moving the audience was important to Britten and Plomer. Witnessing the transition undergone by the Madwoman (sung originally by Pears) from desperate, grieving mother to someone bereft of reason to a character who eventually finds peace is indeed a moving experience. The Madwoman’s extended trial and release is the story.

William Plomer’s note to Britten and Pears

One of the great advantages for researchers studying Plomer’s work is his accessible handwriting. The simple note included with the prints tells us not only how and when they came into Britten and Pears’ possession, but also why. Knowing of Britten and Pears’ fascination with art and eastern culture, Plomer was aware that the gift would be a welcome addition to their library. He was equally aware that Noh had been the driving influence for Britten as far as the concept of his new music drama was concerned. When you consider the theme and narrative of Curlew River, a story of grief, madness and redemption, it is easy to see how Britten and Plomer drew on the principles that govern Noh theatre — simplicity, solemnity and enchantment – when transposing Sumidigawa into a new type of opera. This exquisite set of prints, a delightful volume in its own right, is also valuable for what it tells us about Britten’s music.

Tomomori from the set of six pictures, Kyoto Hango, 1954

- Dr Nicholas Clark, Librarian