Original Research

Musikale narratief in Benjamin Britten se opera Billy Budd

K. Vermeulen, B. Spies
Literator | Vol 28, No 1 | a152 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v28i1.152 | © 2007 K. Vermeulen, B. Spies | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 July 2007 | Published: 30 July 2007

About the author(s)

K. Vermeulen, Skool vir Musiek, Potchefstroomkampus, Noordwes-Universiteit, South Africa
B. Spies, Skool vir Musiek, Potchefstroomkampus, Noordwes-Universiteit, South Africa

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Musical narrative in Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd

In Herman Melville’s story, which is set on a British warship during the Napoleonic wars, Billy Budd becomes the object of a jealous master-at-arms, John Claggart. When the young Billy faces Captain Vere about Claggart’s false accusation of mutiny, he stutters and in a moment of despair, kills Claggart with one blow. The death sentence is inevitable. The discrepancy between the nature of the three main characters and their actual deeds results in ambiguity. Billy, the innocent boy, kills. Vere, the father figure, does not protect Billy on the day of his conviction. Claggart, the manipulator, cannot avoid his own death and dies as the victim.

This article takes Melville’s story and its historic background as a point of departure to investigate the correspondence between the narrative and the unfolding of the music in the opera by Benjamin Britten. The analysis shows that specific musical images depict the diverse, dualistic nature of the three main characters in the opera. Furthermore, the manner in which these musical images are transformed in the course of the opera depicts the evolving plot to create a musical narrative. By promoting the understanding of the manner in which the musical narrative communicates a message, this article is an attempt to contribute to the hermeneutic project in the field of music.


Billy Budd; Britten Benjamin; Melville Herman; Musical Characterisation; Musical Narrative


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