Merging Perspectives: The Open-ended Nature of Brittens Parable Art and the Cantata Misericordium Op. 69

Dean Jobin-Bevans


Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a pacifist who expressed his beliefs in many works throughout his career. His most important pacifist composition, the War Requiem (1961), inserted anti-war poetry by Wilfred Owen between the movements of the Latin Requiem Mass. The Cantata Misericordium, scored for mixed chorus, tenor, and baritone soloists, is a musical telling of the biblical story of the Parable of the Good Samaritan with its universal message of brotherly love and compassion. The Cantata, commissioned for the centenary of the Red Cross in 1963, is Brittens first vocal work composed after the War Requiem. While much has been written about the War Requiem, no one has examined the open-ended nature of the message of the Cantata Misericordium Op. 69.
I will support the position of an open-ended nature of the message of tolerance within the framework of the Cantata Misericordium in three stages of discussion: First, I propose to present a comparison of Patrick Wilkinsons Latin libretto with the original biblical story, exploring reasons for the differences. The most significant departure from the simple biblical narrative is the expanded text assigned to the voice of the chorus, who pass judgment on the actions of the Priest and Levite, and at the close of the Cantata deliver the message of tolerance. Second, I propose to examine the manifestation of queer identity in the allegorical language and formal musical detail of the work. Philip Brett has shown how pacifism and homosexuality were closely linked in Brittens own life as equally deviant in British society. In the story of the Cantata, queer subtexts can be located in the characters of the social outcast (the Traveller) and the compassionate stranger (the Samaritan) who refuses to conform to social expectations. Themes of isolation and conflicting perspectives are also expressed through tonal ambiguity, both within motivic units and in the large-scale tonal plan. Third, I propose to explore Brittens use of the parable format as a didactic tool for the delivery of the open-ended message of the parable. I will draw upon the work of the English musicologist, Philip Rupprecht, who uses speech-act theory to analyze the rhetorical effects of dramatic music. In particular, I will discuss the representation of different characters in solo and chorus voices, in order to examine how the parable works on the listening audience.

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