Benjamin Britten, Suite from The Prince of the Pagodas

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2021–22 subscription concert "Tchaikovsky's Favorites."

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It seems odd that a composer best known for operas exploring society's outcasts and ideas of innocence corrupted would sign on to write a dazzling fairy-tale ballet — complete with an evil sister, airborne journeys through fire and water, and a giant salamander that transforms into a handsome prince. But that's exactly what happened when Benjamin Britten accepted an offer from Sadler's Wells Ballet to compose a new work, The Prince of the Pagodas.

 

When the project was announced in January 1954, Britten was one of the United Kingdom's most important cultural figures. The previous year had seen the premiere of his ninth opera, Gloriana, commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. And shortly before the production opened at the Royal Opera House, the newly crowned queen awarded Britten the Companion of Honour — the first time a composer had received the honorific. 

Britten began work on the new ballet in September 1954, meeting with choreographer John Cranko and turning to Tchaikovsky's ballets for inspiration. (He even slept with a copy of Sleeping Beauty by his bedside.) But England's most prolific composer encountered some unexpected turbulence writing the ballet — and more than two years would pass until the curtain went up on The Prince of the Pagodas.

 

Britten faced three challenges. Firstly, his music largely revolved around voices and expressing text — he was a novice when it came to the ways music had to align with the dancers' physical demands. He also hadn't worked on a large score for orchestra alone since composing A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra in 1945, and he chafed at the idea of producing two hours of instrumental music.

 

Most critically, Britten struggled to craft a musical language to evoke the ballet's fantastical world. Part Beauty and the Beast, part King Lear, Cranko's scenario centers on Belle Rose, a princess in Middle Kingdom China who — after her emperor father decides to leave his kingdom to her evil sister, Belle Épine — is whisked away by a quartet of magical flying frogs to the faraway Pagoda Land, where she falls in love with the Pagoda Prince (who, remember, initially appears as a massive salamander).

 

Even for a vivid musical storyteller like Britten, finding the right soundscape for such a tale proved exceedingly difficult.

 

Britten twice postponed the deadline for submitting his score before leaving England for a globe-trotting concert tour with the tenor Peter Pears, his artistic and life partner. At the tour's midpoint, in January 1956, they arrived in Bali. Britten immediately fell in love with the island, where "music was part of the atmosphere." And in a moment of seemingly cosmic intervention, he heard live for the first time a Balinese gamelan ensemble. Intrigued by the sonic possibilities afforded by the gamelan's variety of mallet percussion, gongs, and drums, Britten made numerous sketches from the performances he attended.

 

He knew the gamelan's "liquid, bronze sound" could anchor his depiction of Pagoda Land, and he worked furiously throughout 1956 to complete the ballet. Flexing his exacting ear, he translated the sounds and rhythms of gamelan into an ensemble of Western instruments, including gong, xylophone, vibraphone, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp, celesta, and two pianos. Their collective sound, first unveiled as princess Belle Rose sees the jeweled Pagoda Palace glimmering in the morning sun, is a magical feat of orchestration.

 

The Prince of the Pagodas received its long-delayed premiere on New Year's Day 1957. Although Britten intended to extract a concert suite from the extensive score, he never committed to the task. The suite The Cleveland Orchestra performs this week, arranged by Britten scholars Donald Mitchell and Mervyn Cooke in the late 1990s, preserves the continuity of the ballet's plot and, over the course of six movements, offers the most striking passages from Britten's spirited score.

 

The Prelude introduces two musical motifs associated with the Pagoda Prince: fanfares in winds and brass represent the prince in human form, followed by ominous trills in the lower strings, from which the prince's "salamander" theme emerges.

 

The Four Kings is an astonishing set of character dances from the suitors hoping to marry the emperor's daughters. The King of the North dances a Cossack hopak full of spiky offbeat accents, while quiet shivers from harp and woodwinds set the scene for the King of the East's meditative dance. The King of the West's music is a parody of the European avant-garde's 12-tone serialism, and the King of the South's dance throbs with polyrhythmic drumming, deep snarls from the low brass, and piercing horn calls.

 

The Strange Journey of Belle Rose to the Pagoda Land follows the princess, rescued from the emperor's palace by four flying frogs — emissaries of the Pagoda Prince — as she travels through air, water, and fire en route to Pagoda Land. Leaping figures from clarinets and trumpets evoke a pair of flames in a playful dance of cheeky swagger.

 

The Arrival and Adventures of Belle Rose in the Kingdom of the Pagodas begins with a series of arabesques from a solo violin as the princess explores her new surroundings. She comes upon a series of pagodas, and as she touches them, the scene is suddenly bathed in light as Britten unleashes his "gamelan ensemble" — whose radiant shimmer mirrors the sunlit sparkle of the jeweled Pagoda Palace.

 

The Pagoda Prince appears in his salamander form, and as he nears Belle Rose, who has been blindfolded by the frog emissaries, his slithery scales slough off, revealing the handsome prince in a gloriously majestic moment for full orchestra. Following a tender pas de deux, Belle Rose, curious to see her new suitor, removes her blindfold. The prince immediately returns to his salamander form, and the terrified Belle Rose runs off stage.

 

The Pagoda Palace: Darkness to Light picks up later in the story, after Belle Rose and the Pagoda Prince have returned to her emperor's court to free her father (and his Fool companion) from the evil Belle Épine, who had imprisoned them so she could rule the kingdom. Newly liberated, the emperor and Fool are taken back to Pagoda Land, where Britten's score once again transfixes, as the splendor of the Pagoda Palace is revealed.

 

Following a joyous divertissement, the Finale unites the Prince's themes with Belle Rose's traveling music, culminating in a broad, celebratory apotheosis for full orchestra. The Fool joins the hands of the Pagoda Prince and Belle Rose, bringing the score to a close in a fleeting moment of playful whimsy.