Britten’s presentation of women in The Rape of Lucretia

The full text of this article can be read as a webpage or as a PDF.

The Rape of Lucretia (Titian)

Cambridge Opera Journal has published my article ‘Britten’s opera about rape’ (the full text can be read as a webpage or as a PDF), a study of his controversial opera The Rape of Lucretia (Cambridge Opera Journal 21, no. 1 (2009): 65–88. doi:10.1017/S0954586709990085). Originally presented as a paper at a conference in Copenhagen in 2009, where a new staging of the opera was being performed by the Danish Royal Opera, my article argues polemically against some prevailing critical attitudes concerning Britten’s opera and the literary tradition it develops. Here is the abstract published in the journal:

Lucretia’s principal virtue is her undoing. Her chastity is vaunted as the guarantor of Collatinus’s honour and standing, as the trigger for Tarquinius’s lust, and its brutal loss as the symbol of the corruption of the Etruscans and thus the catalyst for Junius’s ascent to power. She is established in a patriarchal system as a desexed woman, as innocent as a child, who can only exist as a chaste wife. When her virtue is polluted by rape, she has no choice but to kill herself in an attempt to restore her function as chaste wife.

Britten’s opera encodes the naming of Lucretia in terms redolent of the oppressive ‘speech- acts’ of Peter Grimes. Through tonal and motivic association the projection of her innocence and the ‘stain’ introduced by her rape are worked into the opera’s design at the level of long- range musical structure. Through analysis of the thematic implications of musical process in the work, this article opens to view the complex and at times conflicting moral hermeneutics of the work.

The full text is available via Google Documents at the top of this page. The publisher’s copy of the full text is available from this link. It forms part of a growing series of articles on Britten’s music (see also here).

The article places Lucretia’s rape, often sidelined by interpreters who consider the story to be principally a moral or political fable, at the centre of its argument. Tracing the literary development of the ancient tale, with a particular focus on Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, it demonstrates that earlier tellings of this story or ones like it had given Lucretia (or the wronged woman) recourse to retribution, sometimes violent. Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan, consciously suppress this possibility, and instead Lucretia is condemned to support the abusive patriarchal power structures that establish a situation in which the identity of a woman is limited to the function she can perform as the upholder of her husband’s honour.

Britten encodes Lucretia’s chastity by means of a tonal focus on C major – a favourite key for him in contexts of ‘purity’ or ‘innocence’ – and a melodic focus on the note B, which increasingly comes to be associated with the ‘stain’ on her chastity, i.e. her rape, which she interprets both as her own fault and as the structurally necessary negative that gives definition to her ideological position in the patriarchal order. The interaction of these musical elements is analyzed in the article.


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