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Performing Ritual: Physical and Musical Gesture in Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River

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Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River (1964) defies traditional genre labels, exhibiting characteristics of opera, Japanese Noh drama, and religious ritual. Set in medieval England and given a Christian theme, Curlew River is based on the Noh play Sumidagawa and uses a unique language of physical gesture inspired by Noh traditions. The integration of these physical gestures with the music is one of the ways in which Curlew River projects an atmosphere of ritual. In this paper I examine two passages from Curlew River, each of which demonstrates a close connection between the development of individual musical gestures and the progression of physical actions performed at the same time. In the arietta “Near the Black Mountains,” sung by the character of the Madwoman, the subtle development of a single musical figure is linked to the gradual transformation of the actor’s posture. A similar relationship is present in the Ferryman’s introductory scene, in which physical movements act as punctuation for a sequence of musical statements. In both instances, musical and physical gesture are integrated into a unified form of expression, the intensity and focus of which lend Curlew River its ritual quality.


Benjamin Britten, Curlew River, Gesture, Ritual, Noh

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