Original Research

Representation and function of characters from Greek antiquity in Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice

B. Spies
Literator | Vol 23, No 1 | a316 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v23i1.316 | © 2002 B. Spies | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 August 2002 | Published: 06 August 2002

About the author(s)

B. Spies, Faculty of Arts: Music, Potchefstroomse Universiteit vir CHO, South Africa

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Lack of insight into Greek antiquity, more specifically the nature of classical tragedy and mythology, could be one reason for the negative reception of Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice. In the first place, this article considers Britten’s opera based on Thomas Mann’s novella as a manifestation of classical tragedy. Secondly, it is shown how mythological characters in Mann’s novella represent abstract ideas2 in Britten’s opera, thereby enhancing the dramatic impact of the opera considerably. On the one hand it is shown how the artist’s inner conflict manifests itself in a dialectic relationship between discipline and inspirat ion in Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue that forms the basis of Aschenbach’s monologue at the end of the opera. The conflict between Aschenbach’s rational consciousness and his irrational subconscious, on the other hand, is depicted by means of mythological figures, Apollo and Dionysus. Two focal points in the opera, namely the Games of Apollo at the end of Act 1 and the nightmare scene which forms the climax of the opera in Act 2, are used to illustrate the musical manifestation of this conflict.


Benjamin Britten; Death In Venice; Greek Tragedy; Mythology; Thomas Mann


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Crossref Citations

1. The temporal musical sign: In search of extrinsic musical meaning
Bertha Spies
Semiotica  vol: 2006  issue: 162  first page: 195  year: 2006  
doi: 10.1515/SEM.2006.077