Britten: Suite from The Prince of the Pagodas, Opus 57

Suite from the Ballet The Prince of the Pagodas, Opus 57 (arranged by Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke)

Edward Benjamin Britten was born at Lowestoft, Suffolk, England, on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, in 1913, and died at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on December 4, 1976. On June 12 of that year he had been created Lord Britten of Aldeburgh in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, the first musician to be elevated to the peerage. Britten began work on The Prince of the Pagodas in the spring of 1955, had it all down in piano score in August 1956, and completed the orchestration at the end of the year. The first performance was given by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, on New Year’s Day 1957 with choreography by John Cranko, sets by John Piper, costumes by Desmond Heeley, a cast led by Svetlana Beriosova and David Blair, and with the composer conducting. The company brought the work to America in October 1957. Various conductors, beginning with Oliver Knussen and including John Adams, Norman Del Mar, and André Previn, have drawn concert suites from the full ballet score for their own use. Donald Mitchell’s standing as a leading Britten scholar and editor for nearly half a century gives a sense of official imprimatur to the excerpts played at these concerts. The Suite was first performed in Amsterdam on June 4, 1997 by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The most recent performances by the San Francisco Symphony were given a few weeks ago, on June 12-15, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas. In the introduction to the score, the editors express their thanks for “encouragement and . . . in some instances stimulating suggestions” to Michael Tilson Thomas, Riccardo Chailly, Peter Evans, Paul Kildea, and Ian Julier. The orchestra consists of flute and two piccolos (doubling flutes), two oboes and English horn (doubling oboe), two clarinets and E-flat clarinet, alto saxophone, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, two gongs, triangle, castanets, anvil, tambourine, three tom-toms, two native drums, snare drum, small timpano, bass drum, cymbals, small cymbals, suspended cymbal, celesta, harp, piano four-hands, and strings. The mysterious native drums—not to be found in any of the standard literature on percussion instruments—are used only in the Variation of the King of the South, and there the score indicates that they may be replaced by snare drum without snares and tenor drum “played Timpani-wise.” The complete ballet score is dedicated to Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav Holst and Britten’s musical assistant, and Ninette de Valois, artistic director of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the time. Performance time: about forty-four minutes.

With its iridescent Balinese coloration, much of The Prince of the Pagodas sounds like nothing else by Britten. Norman Del Mar’s concert suite was said to be all prince and no pagodas, but Mitchell and Cooke will not leave you feeling shortchanged in the matter of exotica. Moreover, with a combination of virtuosity and cheek worthy of Ravel, Britten delights in creating a delicious pseudo-gamelan for us without calling on any percussion or other instrument that is not part of the normal arsenal for a mid-twentieth-century orchestra.

Britten’s first encounter with Balinese music came early, and it left him for the most part unimpressed. That was in 1939, when he met the Canadian composer, pianist, and ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee, who had recently spent two years in Bali, becoming the leading Western authority on Indonesian music. McPhee—registered in Britten’s datebook with Mozartian libertarianism of spelling as Macfee—had made some two-piano transcriptions of his finds, which were published by G. Schirmer as Balinese Ceremonial Music, and he persuaded Britten to record them with him. The skeptical side of Britten’s response we may infer from McPhee’s inscription on the copy he gave Britten: “To Ben—hoping he’ll find something in the music, after all.” On the positive end, Britten enjoyed the two-piano pieces enough to give their British premiere with Clifford Curzon in 1944. More important, in his 1941 operetta Paul Bunyan—a failure in New York that year, withdrawn from circulation, and not unearthed again until 1976—Britten had “after all” used a bit of what McPhee had given him.

But the biggest impact on him of music from Indonesia came much later, something to be heard in The Prince of the Pagodas and again, in 1964, in one of his greatest stage scores, the church parable Curlew River. He had experienced the impact of Balinese music in January 1956 as part of a four-month world tour. (Accompanying Britten on that trip were the tenor Peter Pears, his partner in life and art since 1937, and, for much of the way, Prince Ludwig of Hesse and his Scottish wife, Princess Margaret, good friends as well as cultivated and generous patrons. But is there any sillier photograph of a composer than the one of Britten, Pears, and the Hesses posing stiffly in native garb outside their cabin in Bali?) His exposure to this music came at a fortuitous moment, for two years earlier, Britten had undertaken to write the music for a full-evening ballet by the then twenty-six-year-old choreographer John Cranko.

What Cranko envisioned was a “mythological fairy-tale” based on Le Serpentin vert (The Green Serpent) by the Comtesse d’Aulnoy, a racy seventeenth-century lady who wrote fairy tales and historical novels, but with elements added not only from other fairy tales, including Beauty and the Beast (Cranko had fairly recently choreographed Ravel’s Mother Goose for Sadler’s Wells), but also from King Lear, all of it to be in an Asian setting. Cranko had met Britten through John Piper, who had designed four of Britten’s operas, with four more to come, and whose service to the composer would close with the design of the Britten Memorial Window in the parish church at Aldeburgh. The choreographer, who had made the dances for Gloriana, Britten’s 1953 opera in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, asked Britten for advice on choosing a composer for the still unnamed ballet and, never having dreamed of shooting that high, was amazed and delighted to have Britten say, in effect, “Well, what about me?”

What must have attracted Britten, at least in part, was the challenge of doing something new. His early and brilliant Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge had been used for a successful ballet, Jinx, by Lew Christensen, and Jerome Robbins had made a most diverting ballet called Fanfare on The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but outside Gloriana, Britten had written no music specifically intended for dance. He had long loved the Tchaikovsky ballets—“a dream of music,” he wrote in his diary after seeing part of The Nutcracker in 1936—and it delighted him to follow in the master’s footsteps. Indeed, during much of the time when he was composing The Prince of the Pagodas he kept a score of The Sleeping Beauty on his bedside table.

Yet never before had Britten had so much difficulty finishing or even starting a score, nor would he again, and the premiere of The Prince of the Pagodas was twice announced and twice postponed before the curtain finally went up on the first day of 1957. It is hard to say just what the mixture was of some unspecified internal resistance and of an overcrowded calendar, which, aside from many recitals with Peter Pears and all the activities at the Aldeburgh Festival he and Pears had started in 1948, included composing The Turn of the Screw and preparing and conducting its premiere at the 1954 Venice Festival.

Moreover, The Prince of the Pagodas never held a favored place in Britten’s own mind. The premiere went well, which is to say that the music, much of the choreography, the décor, and the dancing were well received, though there were cavils about the scenario, and the ballet stayed in the Sadler’s Wells repertory for three more seasons. I think of three factors that must have contributed to Britten’s negative feelings about The Prince of the Pagodas. One, the most nebulous, was the memory of the difficult gestation. Another was Britten’s anger at John Cranko, who had been engaged to direct (not just choreograph) the Covent Garden production of Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1961 and who, partly because he was distracted by his work with the Stuttgart Ballet, had to be replaced by John Gielgud. (Neither Britten nor Pears had any talent for forgiveness.) And third, there was Pears’s own indifference to the project. No composer ever had a more nurturing and loyal partner than Britten had in Pears, but that great singer and actor showed his Achilles heel when he could not cope with the first stage work by Britten in which he had no part, causing the composer to feel abandoned when the road to the premiere was at its bumpiest.

It may well be that Britten’s attitude to The Prince of the Pagodas has had some effect on the work’s reputation and posthumous career. No question, the score has always been something of a stepchild in the family of Britten’s music. It has its ardent partisans, one of the most passionate being Oliver Knussen, deeply involved in the work’s revival through his performance at Aldeburgh in 1988. One important dissenter is Britten’s generally deeply understanding and sympathetic biographer Michael Kennedy, who writes: “It is a utilitarian score, that is to say it admirably serves its purpose, but of all Britten’s large-scale works it seems to me to be the least characteristic in sound.” There, it seems to me, Kennedy is saying what I said at the beginning of this note: Much of The Prince of the Pagodas sounds like nothing else by Britten. To me that is positive: It should sound different because it evokes a world and an atmosphere that does not come into play in any of his other dramas. It is an enchantingly beguiling, witty, and inventive score.

Listening to the Suite, we need not be too concerned with the details of John Cranko’s scenario, but some sense of context is helpful. In brief, an old emperor has a good daughter, Belle Rose, and a wicked one, Belle Epine (thorn). The empire goes to Belle Epine, who is then courted by four kings, and who turns them all down. The prince of the pagodas appears to the rejected and humiliated Belle Rose in a dream and magically transports her to his own land. There, blindfolded, she dances with a green salamander, who turns out to be the prince in disguise, just allowing a glimpse of his true self. They journey to Belle Rose’s native land. Belle Epine gets her comeuppance, the emperor is restored to his proper dignity and station, and his fool joins the prince’s and Belle Rose’s hand in marriage.

The Suite begins with the arresting fanfares of the ballet’s Prelude. Then come the variations for Belle Epine’s four royal suitors. The King of the North presents himself in a vigorous Gopak. The music for the King of the East is full of mystery: pianissimo string trills and tremolos, a solo for muted high horn, and a haunting melody sounded in unison by oboe and violins high up on their lowest string. The King of the West gets a spiky sort of music that has been taken by some writers to be Britten’s sardonic commentary on Stravinsky’s recent adoption of serial techniques and pilloried as an ugly and stiff musical failure. I don’t know about the parodic aspect, but I can say that to me this movement, prickly though it is, sounds energetic and thoroughly engaging. (If you, too, dislike it, you can take consolation in the fact that it only lasts a minute plus a few seconds.) There is no doubt the variation for the King of the South leans on Stravinsky, here the exuberant Stravinsky of Le Sacre du printemps.      

The largest part of the Mitchell-Cooke Suite is drawn from the ballet’s second act, which begins with The Strange Journey of Belle Rose to the Pagoda Land. Part of the strangeness lies in the fact that she is carried by frogs and the music hops appropriately. The Suite omits Belle Rose’s encounters with creatures from heaven and sea, but goes on to the pas de deux in which flames, one male and one female, threaten her, all that concluded by a coda for a whole chorus of flames.

It is with The Arrival and Adventures of Belle Rose in the Kingdom of the Pagodas that the music takes on its most vivid Indonesian coloration, expressive violin solos being punctuated by the chiming of Britten’s pseudo-gamelan as, to Belle Rose’s amused pleasure, “the Pagodas revolve like merry-go-rounds.” To vividly imagined music, slow and “very smooth,” the huge salamander makes his appearance, and during a grand crescendo—I can imagine Britten’s recalling the Christmas Tree music in The Nutcracker here—the handsome prince emerges from his green skin. Prince and princess dance a rich pas de deux, and here too some of the music—for instance the sinuous English horn melody at the beginning—may remind us of Tchaikovsky. There ensues a game of hiding, chasing, and assuming and shedding of disguises.

Then we move to music from Act III. The prince and princess have exchanged their first kiss, the inhabitants of Pagoda Land are liberated (it is not at all clear from what), and the impending Happy End is celebrated in a series of characteristic dances. But first we hear the music that so tellingly portrays the passage from darkness to delight, a grand, luminously scored slow movement with more gamelan sounds. After that we hear the sprightly Pas de six; the broad and richly expressive Pas de deux; and the flowingly melodic, rhythmically supple (in 7/8!) Pas de trois. Then comes the buoyant waltz finale, with the notion of waltz wonderfully and wittily stretched. We even get a glimpse of two characters not otherwise represented in this Suite: the emperor (the tuba) and his fool (fluttering woodwinds and percussion). The opening fanfares return for the Apotheosis, but the last word belongs to the fool.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Britten’s own recording of the complete ballet is no longer listed in the catalogue, nor is any music from The Prince of the Pagodas available on domestic labels. Oliver Knussen’s recording of the complete ballet score with the London Sinfonietta on EMI Classics is available from, the British version of, or as a digital download through iTunes.

Reading: Britten’s Unquiet Pasts: Sound and Memory in Postwar Reconstruction, by Heather Wiebe (Cambridge University Press)  |  Benjamin Britten: A Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter (Scribners)  │  Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, by Paul Kildea (Allen Lane)  │  Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, by Neil Powell (Henry Holt)  │  Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes, compiled by Philip Brett (Cambridge Opera Handbooks)  │  The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, edited by Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge)  │  The Music of Benjamin Britten, by Peter Evans (Clarendon Press, Oxford)  │  The Operas of Benjamin Britten, by Claire Seymour (BOYE6)  │  The Operas of Benjamin Britten: An Introduction, by Patricia Howard (Praeger)  │  Music and Sexuality in Britten, edited by Philip Brett (University of California Press)

June 2014