Coley, Jacob John Timothy (2019) Historical-Poetic Transformations of the Legend of Lucretia and Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Masters thesis, University of Huddersfield.

The legend of Lucretia is a story that appears in literature, poetry and artwork dating from approximately 500 BC, and more recently musically,in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia (1946). In my thesis I aim to explore the transformative power of mythology and legend, as a reflection of historical and religious attitudes towards gender and rape, in the case of Lucretia. I will compare the historical-poetic accounts of Lucretia according to Livy, Ovid, St Augustine, Chaucer and Shakespeare, and then alongside Duncan’s preparation of and Britten’s setting of the libretto. This will encourage a discourse concerning developing attitudes towards the nature and faith of the raped Lucretia, whilst also exploring Britten’s musical construction of such features for a reduced orchestral force.

Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia remains one of the composer’s lesser-known and infrequently performed operas. Critics and scholars, who have focused on issues of faith, gender and rape, in the score and libretto, have attributed this unpopularity to the opera’s combination of pagan and Christian faiths. Whilst the opera concerns the pagan-Roman Lucretia, Britten and librettist Ronald Duncan adopt a Christian framework, by which the pagan narrative and moral message is destabilised.

In scholarship on Britten’s opera, critics such as Patricia Howard, Claire Seymour and Philip Brett have concluded that the blend of pagan and Christian faiths through harmony and orchestration results in an incohesive faith-narrative: where Lucretia is praised by pagans for her virtue, she is deplored by Christians for her supposed guilt. I intend to explore Britten’s narrative through a historical-poetic approach. As such, my source texts epitomise attitudes towards the raped Lucretia from pagan, Christian, and political viewpoints. This will lead to a detailed musical analysis of key sections, exploring musical constructions of gender, faith and rape.

In the legend, Lucretia’s Otherness, created by her proclaimed chastity, is the object that Tarquinius wishes to defeat. However, beyond this narrative, the legend of Lucretia was adapted, manipulated, and subverted throughout history, often to serve a religious or political purpose beyond the narrative itself. I demonstrate that a historical-poetic understanding of the legend may provide depth to the discourse surrounding Britten and Duncan’s intentions within and beyond the opera’s narrative. This understanding will be used to examine external factors that inform the compositional and textual process of Lucretia as a metaphor, where an examination of only the score and libretto may not suffice.

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