Back to index
Marsh, Malcolm Herbert

The Turn of the Screw: Britten's and Piper's Operatic Fulfilment of Henry James's Novella

Ph.D. Royal Holloway College, University of London, 1983

This thesis aims to determine for the first time the extent to which the opera, The Turn of the Screw, by Myfanwy Piper and Benjamin Britten, translates into music drama the literary substance and seeming intentions of Henry James's novella of the same title.

The thesis comprises an introductory chapter, a sequence of analyses of each opera scene, and a conclusion. Each analytical chapter integrates several functions. It outlines the scope of the scene in terms of the chapters of James that it covers and traces in detail the relevant portion of Piper's libretto text to its Jamesian sources; it examines the aptness of the musical setting to her text and discovers musical passages -- including the variations -- which correspond programmatically to passages of James not included in the text of the libretto. Musical conceits generate some dramatic realization of James.

Piper's quotation from W. B. Yeats in effect points to other allusions which are traced to his poetry; these are used to create poetic diction in the opera for James's originally wordless ghosts. The need consequently arises to consider why Piper referred to Yeats in re-creating James, and so connections and resemblances between the two writers are sought and, for the first time, clarified in detail. Allusions to other sources are also identified and their significance considered. All the allusions demonstrably contribute to the metaphysical dimension of the opera.

The purely literary considerations appear by instalments, as they occur during the opera. They are introduced and explored in chapter sections subdivided from the analyses of the music and libretto text. The musical realization of these additional literary elements is then examined during each subsequent integrated analysis.

This research reveals that Britten and Piper not only fulfil, but frequently intensify, the substance and spirit of James's novella.