Britten’s Brilliant Twelve-Tone Row in THE TURN OF THE SCREW

Central City Opera opens its third mainstage production tonight with the creepy and cool opera The Turn of the Screw. While not as toe-tapping as the songs from this year’s Oklahoma!, the score is very interesting. The opera is organized in a way that would thrill those of the Type-A personality. Benjamin Britten built the entire opera on a twelve-tone row, which is a non-repetitive ordering of a set of pitches. You can listen to the twelve-tone row here.

Twelve-Tone Row on which the opera is based

The opera is divided into two acts, with each act containing eight scenes, and the first act preceded by a Prologue. Before each scene, the chamber orchestra plays a short introduction based on the twelve-tone row you just heard. Each introduction features the instruments that are important in the following scene. You may be thinking: “Wow, this sounds so mathematical and boring. How can this music be interesting, dynamic, and evocative?” Britten was a genius at getting the music to serve the story. His use of instrumentation and speech-like melody brings out all of the colors and emotions of the drama happening on stage.

Listen again to that twelve-tone row, then watch the first scene of the opera below, produced by the Glyndebourne Festival in 2011. You’ll hear the main theme – with the twelve-tone row masterfully played by the entire orchestra – then the Governess’s first aria. Note the use of percussion in the theme and during the first scene. Britten uses the percussion to invoke the feeling of anticipation, excitement, and a bit of apprehension – all feelings that the Governess has as she is traveling to Bly House to begin her new job.

Want to know more? This blog post is part of the article What to Listen for in The Turn of the Screw, found in the 2012 Opera Insider (Festival Resource Guide – PDF).

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