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Prodigal Son, Thelocked

  • Arnold Whittall

Extract

Third parable for church performance by benjamin Britten to a libretto by william Plomer ; Orford Church, Suffolk, 10 June 1968.

Britten’s third church parable takes the familiar New Testament story as its subject. As in Curlew river and The Burning Fiery Furnace, singers and players are dressed as monks, acolytes and lay brothers, and perform without a conductor. The main difference is that, after the processional hymn, ‘Jam lucis orto sidere’, the Abbot (tenor) appears already costumed for his dramatic role as the Tempter, gleefully describing how he will destroy the happiness of a worthy family. After the instrumental interlude in which the other characters are robed and masked, the Father (baritone) expresses the family’s pious sense of purpose, rooted in hard work: ‘Sin is for idle hands’. In the Father’s music a warm major triad (B♭) stands out in music that generally avoids this simple sonority. The Elder Son (bass) willingly goes to work in the fields, but the Younger Son (tenor) holds back, and the Tempter appears, urging him to ‘act out your desires’. The Father reluctantly agrees to give the Younger Son his inheritance, despite the recriminations of his elder brother, and to an ensemble of farewell the Younger Son sets out, the Tempter in attendance. As soon as they reach the city they are beset by parasites and beggars. The Younger Son drinks and gambles, and the pieces of his outer robe are progressively removed to symbolize his descent into destitution. After the extended ensembles of these scenes there is a return to simpler textures as, in a brief yet eloquent duet with the solo viola, the Younger Son admits his sin and resolves to return home. There he is welcomed with joy, in a dance-like psalm-setting – and, after his words of reproach, the Elder Son is reconciled to his father and younger brother. In the final stages the Abbot discards the guise of Tempter to point the moral, and the work ends with the processional hymn, as the company leaves the acting area....

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