Musical tones are always telling us something in The Rape of Lucretia . Sometimes they signify the most specific of things. Harpy mosquitos nag at the three generals. The humid air of their camp is thick with dusky, muted violins. The croaking of bullfrogs is plucked out by the double bass. A French horn blares out the call to battle, or perhaps the echoes of battles already fought and portents of those to come. Later, those same instruments will come to signify different things. The delicate oscillations of the harp – and later those of pizzicato strings – pluck out the cyclical daily routines of the three women: their thread-spinning, their linen-folding, their waiting.
What the women are waiting for, and what the men are fighting for, is revealed in part by the words they sing and further by the music that accompanies them. While each scene in Act I has its characters repeat similar melodies in succession and then sing all together, each character thereafter claims their own musical style. Junius’ music is obsessive, agitated, and driven. Collatinus’ is tempered, even, and calculated. Tarquinius’ is at first taut and physical, later sweeping and sensual, and finally jagged and violent. Lucia’s music is youthful and light. Bianca’s is here affectionate and sweet, there plaintive and melancholy. Lucretia’s music is perhaps the most complex – melancholy, yearning, frantic, defiant, declarative, and grief-stricken. Even the Male Chorus and Female Chorus – narrators existing apart from the action of this story – have their own styles. The Male Chorus’ music tends to be caught up in the environment and action around him. His melodies bend and slink with the sultry air of the general’s camp, and he whispers expectantly as Tarquinius sneaks through the midnight halls of Lucretia’s home. In contrast, the Female Chorus’s music is often more detached from the action on stage. Her melodies are more speech-like, knowingly declarative, measured, and undecorated.
Finally, beyond the rhythmic and melodic styles specific to these characters, there are large-scale musical signifiers that inform our hearing of the opera and its relationship to a larger body of western classical music. Despite the density of Britten’s musical language, this opera is tonal. That is, it contains the same chords and plays by the same basic rules as the symphonies of Beethoven, for example. The opera begins in c minor, a key so often associated with tragedy, war, and funeral marches. It ends in C Major, completing a major-to-minor transformation that ought to signify rebirth, transcendence, transformation, victory, or apotheosis. But the move to C Major in The Rape of Lucretia comes too easily, suddenly, and willfully. I do believe that Britten is calling upon the rhetoric of works like Beethoven’s 5th symphony – a funeral march in c minor that transforms into a victory march in C Major. I also believe that this association is wrought with irony. Britten plays out this major-to-minor routine in a way that calls attention to history’s repeating cycles of war and personal violence. Britten, a self-declared pacifist and conscientious objector wrote The Rape of Lucretia just as World War 2 came to a close. Perhaps what is signified in his music, despite even the Christian message of forgiveness offered at the opera’s end, is not redemption at all. It is first a naked truth – that the violence we visit upon our fellow humans can never lead to victory. It is finally a haunting question – “Is this it all?”