Major Operas | Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten | Modern Era

First performed at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden on 1 December 1951, this adaptation of Herman Melville’s short story saw E. M. Forster writing large portions of prose while Eric Crozier focused on the dramatic execution. Accordingly, Billy Budd was one of the most meticulously researched and well-written librettos of any Benjamin Britten opera.

Typically for a Britten protagonist, the seafaring title character is an outsider pitted unwittingly against Claggart, the master-at-arms, and it is the tensions and clashes between the two men that serve as the dramatic and musical focus. Contrapuntal in nature, the work is distinguished by motifs that are used throughout to develop characters and their psychological struggles. In addition to its compositional dissonances, the orchestration is thick and expansive, with Britten employing the largest orchestra that he ever used for one of his operas. Nevertheless, in stark contrast to this musical density and complexity is the character of Billy himself. Uncomplicated, he is an innocent caught up in – and ultimately destroyed by – the machinations and injustices of a microcosmic world at sea aboard the Indomitable.

Composed: 1950–51
Premiered: 1951, London (original four-act version; revised 1961)
Libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, after Herman Melville’s story


Captain Vere reflects that all the good he has known has had some fault. He recalls the summer of 1797, shortly after the mutiny at the Nore, when he commanded HMS Indomitable.

Act I

Sailors are scrubbing the deck. Squeak, a ship’s corporal, is ordered to flog the novice for accidentally bumping into the bosun. Three men have been impressed from a passing merchantman, the Rights o’ Man. Mr Flint, the sailing master, is unimpressed by the usual standard. The third man questioned by Claggart, the master-at-arms, is different. Billy Budd is an illiterate foundling, but a willing sailor who enjoys working in the foretop. His stammer, however, is evident under questioning. The officers mistake his farewell to the Rights o’ Man for revolutionary talk. Mr Flint comments that there is always some defect. Claggart orders Squeak to make trouble for Billy. Billy is warned against Claggart, who calls him ‘Beauty’. The sailors praise ‘Starry Vere’, the captain.

The officers, summoned to Vere’s cabin, disapprove of anything French, especially revolutionary ideas. Vere says they need not worry about Billy’s high spirits. Billy finds Squeak searching through his belongings in the berth-room. Trying to control his stammer, he fights Squeak, who pulls a knife. Claggart orders Squeak to be arrested and gagged. He praises Billy, saying ‘handsomely done’. It is this ‘handsomeness’ that Claggart hates. He has Billy in his power and is doomed to destroy him. He bullies the novice into offering Billy money to lead a mutiny. Billy’s stammer reappears when he realizes what is being suggested. He does not believe Dansker’s warning to beware of ‘Jemmy Legs’ (Claggart).

Act II

The mist lifts and a French warship is sighted. The Indomitable is prepared for action, but they remain...

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