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Curlew River

A parable for church performance. Op. 71 (1964)


Image: opening of Yoshi Oïda's production of Curlew River at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Libretto by William Plomer from the medieval Japanese No-play ‘Sumidagawa’ of Juro Motomasa

First performance

12 June 1964 Orford Church, Aldeburgh Festival

The concert tour of the Far East that Britten undertook with Peter Pears in December 1955 was to have profound consequences for his subsequent work. His encounter with gamelan orchestras on a visit to Bali had an immediate impact on the ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, and it was his experience of the austere, stylized ritual of Japanese Noh theatre that was to be the main inspiration for the three Church Parables, composed at two-yearly intervals between 1964 and 1968. Of the three, Curlew River, the first to be composed, retains the closest link with the original Japanese by being adapted from an authentic Noh play, Sumidagawa (Sumida River) by Juro Motomasa.

In Curlew River, however, the action is transferred to mediaeval East Anglia and given a specifically Christian context, symbolised by the use of the plainchant that frames the action, Te lucis ante terminum, from which the whole piece stems. The result is a work that seems to invent a completely new operatic experience while also containing some of Britten’s most intense and hauntingly beautiful music.