Benjamin Britten's Silent 'Epilogue' to The Holy Sonnets of John Donne

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The Musical Times

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BENJAMIN BRITTEN'S War requiem (1962) is widely viewed as one of the 20th century's commemorative masterpieces, a work that emerged from the long shadow of World War 2. Yet Britten's immediate and heartrending response to the horrors of the conflict, only weeks after the cessation of fighting in Europe, is his song-cycle The holy sonnets of John Donne op.35 (1945). Famously, Britten completed the cycle from 2 to 19 August of that year at Snape. Little known, however, is that on 15 August 1945, 13 days after the first song, 'Oh my blacke Soule!', was dated, and four days before the extant final song of the cycle, 'Death, be not proud', was autographed, a heretofore unheard 'Epilogue', a completed and fully notated song of some 40 bars, received three final strikes: a pencil line starting in the upper leftmost corner and cutting downward across the autograph manuscript of each of its three pages. A setting of text from Donne's 'Meditation XVII' that contains the iconic lines 'For whom the bell tolls', the song was never included in Britten's final score, its plaintive utterance never heard on the concert stage. Neither sent to the publisher nor given a single performance, the pencil draft manuscript sits virtually unseen in the archival vault of the Britten-Pears Foundation in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, protected from decay yet essentially silent to the world.


This article was originally published as "Benjamin Britten's Silent 'Epilogue' to The Holy Sonnets of John Donne" in The Musical Times, Vol. 156, No. 1933 (December 2015): 17-30.