Nocturnal after John Dowland, op. 70 by Benjamin Britten
These posts explore famous works of the past and present. You might enjoy the history and video performances, or this might be a good way for students to become familiar with the famous works.
What better piece to start us off in this new category than Nocturnal after John Dowland, Op. 70 by Benjamin Britten. Nocturnal was composed in 1963 by English composer Benjamin Britten and was written for guitarist Julian Bream. Due to the importance and prominence of the composer it is one of the most influential works written in the twentieth century. Julian Bream premiered the piece on 12 June 1964 at the Aldburgh Festival.
The piece is based on Come, Heavy Sleep from John Dowland’s “First Book of Songs”(1597). The movements are variations on Dowland’s theme and represent various dreamscapes. Each variation becomes progressively closer to the Dowland song which finally appears in last movement. You could call this a set of variations in reverse. Here are the movements: 1. Musingly, 2. Very Agitated, 3. Restless, 4. Uneasy, 5. March-like, 6. Dreaming, 7. Gently Rocking, 8. Passacaglia.
Maybe the most important thing about this work is the importance of Benjamin Britten as a composer, not a guitar composer mind you. He is a central figure of 20th-century classical music and can not be ignored by non-guitarists. His prominence combined with brilliant composing, virtuosity, and highly interpretative natural inherent to the score makes this work a masterpiece. Rarely has a guitar work attracted so many musicians from outside the guitar world. In general, up to the point of the Segovia years little solo music had been written for the guitar by composers who were not players themselves. There are exceptions of course but in general, the prominent composers of past eras wrote little for our confusing and quiet little instrument. Therefore, this work really is a monumental achievement even in a century when many important composers started considering the instrument. So, it was not entirely new for a big composer to write for us but it was an important step. Other composers took note of this, if Britten has written for the instrument maybe we should too. Let’s take a look at some performances of the work.
Paul Galbraith Plays Nocturnal After John Dowland, Op. 70
Eliot Fisk Plays Nocturnal, op. 70 by Benjamin Britten
Bream Plays Nocturnal, op. 70
I couldn’t find a version of Bream playing all the movements in one video but if you search for Nocturnal + Bream on YouTube you’ll find more. Here’s the last movement:
Please share your experiences and thoughts about this work in the comment section below.