Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Nocturnal after John Dowland: Reflections on “Come, Heavy Sleep”
II. Very agitated
VII. Gently rocking
VIII. Passacaglia – Slow and quiet
Nathan Cornelius, guitar
Some of the earliest music played on guitar comes from the Renaissance lute works of English composer John Dowland, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. Thus, it was fitting that Benjamin Britten, the greatest English composer of the 20th century, paid homage to Dowland in his only major solo guitar work, Nocturnal. Nocturnal is based on Dowland’s melancholy song “Come, Heavy Sleep,” in which the speaker longs for sleep as an escape from the sorrows of life. This song, one of Dowland’s finest, is notable for its chromaticism (for example, using natural and sharp versions of the same note in close proximity), and for its second half, which begins on an unexpected chord with a disturbingly martial rhythm. Nocturnal is a series of variations which expand or amplify various aspects of Dowland’s song, poetically suggesting the various moods of sleep (or sleeplessness). The piece culminates in an extended Passacaglia, in which the accompaniment part from the beginning of the song (a descending scale fragment) becomes a ponderous bass line which brutally interrupts the other strands of music. After a massive climax, the passacaglia dissolves into a rendition of the original song and then gradually fades away, as if the music itself has gone to sleep.