Curlew River — A Parable for Church Performance (Op. 71) is the first of three Church Parables by Benjamin Britten. The work is based on the Japanese noh play Sumidagawa (Sumida River) of Juro Motomasa (1395–1431), which Britten saw during a visit to Japan and the Far East in early 1956.
The libretto is by William Plomer, who translated the setting of the original into a Christian parable, set in early medieval times near the fictional Curlew River, in the fenlands of East Anglia. The action centres on the Madwoman - an outsider. This theme is common to almost all of Britten's dramatic works: Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Owen Wingrave all focus on an outsider protagonist.
Curlew River marked a departure in style for the remainder of the composer's creative life, paving the way for such works as Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice, and the Third String Quartet.
The work was premiered in Orford Church on June 13, 1964 at Orford Church, Suffolk, England.
The story is told through four main characters who, in the style of Noh theatre, are all performed by male singers: the Abbot (a bass, who acts as a narrator), the Madwoman (tenor), the Ferryman (baritone) and the Traveller (baritone). A chorus is provided by eight Pilgrims (three tenors, three baritones and two basses).
Curlew River opens (as do the other two Church Parables) with a processional (to the hymn 'Te lucis ante terminum' - "To Thee before the close of day") in which all performers (musicians included) walk to the performance area and take their places. At a cue from the organ, the Abbot (who acts as a narrator) introduces the "mystery" to be presented. An unhurried robing ceremony - to stately instrumental accompaniment - follows, after which the play commences.
The Madwoman and Traveller wish to cross the Curlew River on the Ferryman's boat. After briefly introducing themselves, the Madwoman explains her quest: she is searching for her child who has been missing for a year. Though the Ferryman is initially reluctant to carry the Madwoman, the other characters take pity on her and persuade the Ferryman to give her passage. As he is carrying the Madwoman and the Traveller across the river, he tells the story of a boy who, one year ago, arrived in the area with a cruel master who kidnapped him from his home near the Black Mountains (which is where the Madwoman is from). The boy was sick, and was left by the river by his master. Though the boy was looked after by the local people, he died. The Ferryman recounts the boy's words, I know I am dying... Please bury me here, by the path to this chapel. Then, if travellers from my dear country pass this way, their shadows will fall on my grave, and plant a yew tree in memory of me. The river people believe that the boy's grave is sacred, that some special grace is there, to heal the sick in body and in soul.
As the Ferryman tells his story, it becomes clear that the boy who died one year ago is the child of the Madwoman. Grief-stricken by this knowledge, she joins the rest of the cast in praying at the boy's graveside. At the climactic moment when all the men are chanting together, the voice of the boy (a treble) is heard echoing them, and his spirit appears above the tomb to reassure his mother (Go your way in peace, mother. The dead shall rise again, And in that blessed day, We shall meet in heav'n), at which point the Madwoman is redeemed and her madness lifts. Britten depicts the moment with the Madwoman letting out a joyful, melismatic "Amen", the final note of which resolves onto a long-delayed unison with the full cast - a signal of return and acceptance.
Here, the robing ceremony music returns, as at the start, and the players resume their normal dress. The Abbot reiterates the moral and bids the audience farewell. The full cast then recess to the same plainsong with which the work began.
The singers are accompanied by a small group of instrumentalists, dressed as lay brothers. The work is scored for:
Unusually, there is no conductor in the work: instead, the instrumental performers lead among themselves, the places at which instrument is to lead being marked in the score. The lack of a conductor allows Britten to dispense with a universal tempo, the performers often instead playing in two or more separate groups at separate tempi, comparable to the sound of the music of a Nobayashi ensemble in Noh plays. This leads to another unusual notational device, the 'Curlew sign', which is used to 'resynchronise' previously separate groups of musicians by instructing one to sustain or repeat notes 'ad lib' until a given point has been reached in the music of another group. The harp part is heavily influenced by music for the koto and the chamber organ part features extensive use of tone clusters, which are derived from the shō, an ancient Japanese free reed mouth organ used in gagaku court music. (Britten had learned to play this instrument while in Japan for two weeks in February 1956.)
Britten's chief compositional technique in Curlew River is heterophony, which he uses to extraordinary dramatic effect. It permeates all aspects of the work's composition, with textures derived from short, decorative couplings, or long, unsynchronised layers of melody. It should be pointed out that the opening plainsong ('Te lucis ante terminum') suggests many of the melodic shapes throughout the Parable.
As in many of Britten's other dramatic works, individual instruments are used to symbolise particular characters. In Curlew River, the flute and horn are used most clearly for this purpose, symbolising the Madwoman and Ferryman respectively. With such a small orchestra, Britten does not use the 'sound worlds' that are clearly demonstrated in his War Requiem and A Midsummer Night's Dream, nor the dramatic change in orchestral timbre (with the entry of the celeste) that accompanies the appearances of Quint in The Turn of the Screw or Tadzio in Death in Venice.